Elizabeth Edwards' legacy: toughness amid tragedy

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Associated Press

Posted on December 8, 2010 at 8:01 AM

Updated Wednesday, Dec 8 at 12:05 PM

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — A son dying young. A six-year battle with cancer. A humiliating betrayal.

Americans knew Elizabeth Edwards in large part through her tragedies, but more importantly, they knew her for the vitality and determination she showed in dealing with them. Her cancer incurable and her former-presidential-candidate husband mired in a paternity scandal, she did not shrink from public life but shared her story and advocated for health care reform.

"We can look at that face of courage and realize we can have that, too," said Darlene Gardner, 62, who runs a cancer support group and founded a store in Cary that provides wigs and other items for those with the disease. "It shows you that, in spite of everything that's going on, you can come through anything."

Edwards died of cancer Tuesday at her North Carolina home surrounded by her three children, siblings, friends and her estranged husband, John. She was 61. She and her family had announced Monday that doctors told her further treatment would do no good.

"In her life, Elizabeth Edwards knew tragedy and pain," President Barack Obama said in a statement. "Many others would have turned inward; many others in the face of such adversity would have given up. But through all that she endured, Elizabeth revealed a kind of fortitude and grace that will long remain a source of inspiration."

On Facebook, an Elizabeth Edwards fan page was inundated with posts a minute after her death was announced. Many of those offering condolences mentioned their own experiences with cancer, or those of their relatives.

"People identified with her and saw how courageous she was under extremely difficult circumstances," said Barbara Chassin, a 62-year-old cancer survivor from Phoenix, in an interview. "Also, she was fairly realistic about her prognosis, and that's a good thing."

Dr. Linda Vahdat, an oncologist and director of the Breast Cancer Research Program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City, said Edwards' public discussions about her diagnosis, illness and treatment have helped raise awareness. She said her breast cancer patients were talking about Edwards on Tuesday.

"They're sad," Vahdat said. "People have always been rooting for her."

Edwards shared her life struggles in memoirs, and the events she held to promote them attracted women who confided how they dealt with hair loss from treatments or how her words helped them cope with lost children.

Ellen Schoenfeld, a breast cancer survivor in New York, said Edwards gave other people with cancer "the motivation to live their lives the way they want to live them," she said. "People might think you need to change the way you live when you get a diagnosis like that, but she wanted to maintain a sense of normalcy, for her kids and for herself, too. I think she just wanted to live as normal a life as possible."

Elizabeth Edwards advised her husband during his successful 1998 Senate campaign in North Carolina and his presidential runs in 2004 and 2008. Doctors found a lump on her breast in 2004, in the final days of his unsuccessful vice presidential campaign.

After treatments, doctors found her to be cancer-free, but in early 2007, shortly after John Edwards launched a second bid for the White House, the couple learned that her cancer had returned in an incurable form.

"We are not in denial," Elizabeth Edwards wrote in an updated version of her first memoir published in 2007. "I will die much sooner than I want to."

Her husband added to her suffering with an affair with videographer Rielle Hunter that he publicly acknowledged in 2008. Instead of playing a role in the final weeks of the presidential race, which Edwards had quit after poor primary showings, he and Elizabeth retreated almost entirely from public life.

Hunter had a baby that John Edwards insisted was not his until January 2010, when he acknowledged he had fathered the child. A week later, friends revealed that he and Elizabeth had separated.

Still, John Edwards was with her when she died.

"He loved Elizabeth," David "Mudcat" Saunders, a political adviser and friend of the family. "You climb that many mountains and you go through the deepest valley that two people can possibly go through together — the loss of a child — and that makes for an incredible bond."

In her book "Saving Graces," Elizabeth Edwards talked about collapsing in the aisle of a grocery store after seeing her son Wade's favorite soda — Cherry Coke— a few months after he died in a car accident at 16. She later had two children, Emma Claire and Jack, who joined daughter Cate.

After her husband's political career imploded, Elizabeth Edwards returned to advocacy work, pushing for universal health care. She often wondered aloud about the plight of those who faced the same of kind of physical struggles she did but without her personal wealth.

Glenn Bergenfield, a classmate of both Elizabeth and John Edwards at the University of North Carolina Law School, told CBS Elizabeth Edwards' legacy would be one of grace and patience in the face of adversity.

"Elizabeth was unafraid of anything that I ever saw," Bergenfield said. "She's faced into the most horrendous thing that we can all think about, the loss of a child, and she's done it with grace."

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Noveck reported from New York.

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