Elizabeth Edwards: I'm in a Happy Place
She spent 16 weeks undergoing chemotherapy, had a lumpectomy, and then had six weeks of radiation. Today, although plagued by lymphedema – numbness in the hands and feet that is a common, often lifelong effect of lymph node removal – she is cancer free.
She and John, 53, who now heads an antipoverty center, are settling into their dream home near Chapel Hill, N.C., with Emma Claire, 8, and Jack, 6, their two younger children. Daughter Cate, 24, is a student at Harvard Law School.
Edwards, 57, whose new book, Saving Graces, is excerpted in PEOPLE's Oct. 2 issue, talks about her battle with cancer, stepping back into the spotlight and keeping an optimistic outlook.
Was it tougher battling cancer than you imagined?
Elizabeth: It overwhelmed me. I went in completely naïve. I thought, 'I'll just beat this thing. It's not going to get the best of me!' But there were long periods of time where I could barely do anything. I was so amazed there were women going through this and doing a full schedule working and taking care of children without help. That blows me away, how strong those women must be.
How did your husband react?
John was always there by my side. I cannot say enough about what a great husband he has been through all of this. John and I are so completely connected. There is nothing closer than where we are now.
After living an intensely private life after the 2004 election, how does it feel to step back into the spotlight?
I have to admit I had a little trepidation coming out of my comfort zone. I was writing and doing things with the kids and getting the house (together). I realize I've been talking baby talk for two years and I have to make adult conversation. If I'm not talking about the book or building the house, I get a little nervous. But it's been a good time for our family. I've concentrated on that.
How do you stay optimistic?
There are lots of little munchkins around my feet, but the dragon is slain. I have lymphedema and my energy isn't what it was, but I don't have a thing to complain about because the cancer isn't there.
So your hands and feet are numb?
We were finishing up building our new house and I was walking barefoot on the driveway. A construction worker asked, 'Aren't your feet burning?' I told him, 'I can't feel a thing.'
How did you manage to type the book?
I thought my hands would hurt writing the book, and I wouldn't be able to do it myself, but it turned out not to be the case. I knew when I had the (five cancerous) lymph nodes removed that I might be subject to lymphedema. After cancer, this isn't bad.
How are you feeling?
I'm in a happy place. I feel really optimistic.