"He's been, the last years, an extraordinary caretaker," says Elizabeth (two days after announcing her cancer is back).
TODD HEISLER/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX
03/29/2007 at 09:00 AM EDT
Elizabeth and John Edwards sat down their two youngest children – Emma Claire, 8, and Jack, 6 – in the family room on the evening of March 21. There was some giggling, some talk of school that day and of Jack's field trip to a supermarket. Then John Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina now running for the White House, changed the subject. "He said, 'I need to tell ya'll something,'" Elizabeth says. " 'I need to tell you that Mommy's cancer is back, and it's not going away this time.'" The kids wanted to know: Was their mom going to die?
"John was honest," Elizabeth told PEOPLE. "He said cancer can kill. And then he said, 'Everybody at the table who's not going to die, raise their hands.'" Neither of the children budged. "They understood, or I hope they understood, that we're all going to die," she says. "The only thing we have control of is how you spend the time, that precious time."
The next day, wearing brave smiles, the Edwardses told their news to the nation, announcing that Elizabeth, 57 – who was treated for breast cancer in 2004 – had received troubling results from a biopsy. Her cancer had reappeared, this time in one of her ribs, and is now incurable. (In subsequent comments, Elizabeth and her oncologist Dr. Lisa Carey said they are also treating spots found in her lung and right hip as if they were cancerous.) But what spawned debate was the couple's resolve, despite Elizabeth's condition, to continue John's campaign to win the White House in 2008. Was Elizabeth a hero for soldiering on – or in deep denial? Was their determination to keep campaigning a sign of optimism – or unquenchable ambition?