In an interview with PEOPLE in Santa Monica, Calif., the couple defend the intensely personal decision, and open up about breaking Elizabeth's news to family, friends – and the nation.
Both your diagnosis and your decision to keep campaigning have been big news.
Elizabeth Edwards: We expected some attention to it, but we didn't expect sort of wall-to-wall coverage of it. Some of that is gratifying, honestly, because it's been a conversation about health care or about what it's like to be living with cancer. Everybody makes personal decisions that are right for them and if you're in political life, you're used to having those analyzed. But the day after day after day of analysis of decisions about which we feel as secure as you can under these circumstances is actually more grueling than what today would be like without that – despite the diagnosis.
This is an intensely personal decision about how we want to live our lives. As long as it's not illegal and not hurting anybody it shouldn't ... Actually, we watched [ABC's This Week with] Cokie Roberts, and Sam Donaldson was saying, 'Well, people might not vote for (John).' And she said, 'Then don't vote for him! But don't judge them on the personal decisions they made.'
How did you tell your young children, Emma Claire, 8, and Jack, 6?
Elizabeth: We all sat at the table in the family room. We called them in and said we had something important to say and they were just giggling and laughing. Jack had had a field trip to Whole Foods that day. So it was all of those kinds of regular family things. We had to wait for a calm moment, and John said, 'I need to tell y'all something. I need to tell you that Mommy's cancer is back.' They seemed interested but not depressed by the information. They asked was I going to lose my hair, which delighted them the first time. No, I probably wouldn't but John explained to them I probably would be getting medicine again.
We also explained that it wasn't going to go away this time – and that prompted questions about whether I would die from it. John was honest and said that this cancer can kill. Then he said, 'Everybody at the table who's not going to die, raise their hands.' They understood – or I hope they understood – that we're all going to die and nobody has any guarantee of how much time they have. The only thing we have control of is how you spend the time, that precious time.
John Edwards: The kids actually responded well. It's encouraging. It's hard to know how much they actually grasped, but they seemed to understand.
Sen. Edwards, as a husband you must have felt conflicted. Your first reaction, after all, was to cancel campaign events in Iowa and rush home to Elizabeth.
John: It is a conflict – you have multiple conflicts. One, I was worried about my children. I was worried about [Elizabeth] and what she needed emotionally and what she needed physically in terms of her health, which is why before we made any final decisions we talked to the doctor about what Elizabeth would need and what was possible. But I also listened to Elizabeth, like I always do, and took into consideration what she felt. Ultimately, it was my decision to make but I would say we made it as a couple. She was very powerful in her belief that I needed to be president.
TODD HEISLER / THE NEW YORK TIMES / REDUX
John: I don't think it's true. We have life experience with this kind of struggle. (The Edwardses lost their son Wade in a 1996 car accident when he was 16.) With Wade's death, which was unbelievably traumatic, within a very short period of time, I was out there with Elizabeth setting up a learning center for high school kids.
Mrs. Edwards, you talk in your book, Saving Graces, about making the mistake of Googling for your prognosis after you first discovered your breast cancer in 2004.
Elizabeth: I told myself I wouldn't, but I did it again. When they said I was going to go in for a bone scan, I was thinking, 'Okay, I have a break in a suspicious place' (her rib). I was thinking, 'Why would you do a bone scan for that?' It was after I Googled that that I called John.
What did your doctor tell you about your prognosis?
Elizabeth: She said that before we got the CT scan back that if it had spread and my liver had lit up on the CT scan, that we could be talking about a very short period of time – under a year maybe. But since [after the CT] I wasn't in that condition, the range she gave us went 10 years or beyond, a huge difference. Ten or 15 years: When I think about time periods like that, I think if we would just fund breast cancer research or cancer research in general, I just need the medicine to catch up to me. The medicine is going to catch up to this condition – it's just a question of when.
To what other bones and organs, if any, has the cancer spread?
Elizabeth: It doesn't appear to be in any organs, except that there may be some spots in one of my lungs. What she said about those spots is they won't biopsy them, and that if that was the only finding, in the absence of the locations in the bone, she would have said come back in six months. In conjunction with this, it means that we do have some additional metastasis, so that will affect the protocol, but not the prognosis.
In 10 to 15 years you could have a grandchild. (The couple have a 25-year-old daughter, Cate)
Elizabeth: I could. If I think about how long it's been since I've seen [my son] Wade – April 4th it will be 11 years – it seems like forever. Because I have smaller children, I'd like to see them into adulthood. I'd like to see the person they marry, all those things, and maybe I will. But 11 years or 10 years – it doesn't seem so short to me. Particularly because I really believe we're going to have a Democratic president next time, so I believe we're going to have money in our cancer research and we're going to start making strides that have been building up in un-government-subsidized research.
Sen. Edwards, if things change drastically will you continue the campaign?
John: I'm committed to this cause of running for president, and Elizabeth's committed to it too. If there come times when she needs me, I'll be there. Period.
Elizabeth: Understand that when John asked Dr. Carey whether or not I could do this, he didn't say, 'Could she do it for the next month?' He said, 'We're facing a campaign that could last for the next 18 months or whatever. Can she do that?' The doctor said there's no physical reason to believe that she can't. We're making our decisions based on the medicine as we understand it, not on wishful thinking.