Elizabeth Edwards: The Fight of Her Life

updated 11/22/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/22/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

Inside the four-story yellow colonial on a tree-lined street in Georgetown, a "Welcome Home Daddy" sign still sits in the hallway. In their pajamas, 6-year-old Emma Claire and her brother Jack, 4, scamper up a stairway in the carriage house out back, where their mother poses for a photographer. John Edwards, the former vice presidential candidate, looks on. "From the minute this happened, not a whimper," he says admiringly of his wife. "It's all strength. I don't know anybody else who could do that. It's just amazing."

Earlier that week, on the morning after her husband and John Kerry lost their grueling election battle, Elizabeth Edwards, a 55-year-old former attorney, announced to the nation that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Now, in an exclusive interview with People, she speaks candidly of the family's private drama since she discovered a lump in her right breast 11 days before the Nov. 2 election and waited eight days to see a doctor—and to tell her husband of 27 years. "The morning I discovered it, we were so busy with the campaign and just moved forward," she says. "I didn't want to set off alarm bells if there wasn't something to be alarmed about."

The past few weeks have been filled with trips to the doctor, where she has been "poked and prodded and tested," says Edwards, and the truth is now inescapable. Although specialists at Georgetown University Medical Center have yet to determine if her cancer has moved into her lymph nodes, she and her family are bracing for an aggressive 16-week course of chemotherapy, then surgery followed by radiation. "I honestly believe you have to envision yourself getting through this like a runner, and faith is an important component of doing that," says Edwards.

Not that she and her husband haven't encountered—and overcome—tragedy before. In 1996 the couple lost their 16-year-old son Wade in a fluke car accident. Determined to rebuild her family, Edwards, then 47, underwent fertility treatments that resulted in the births of Emma Claire and, two years later, Jack. This time, too, say those closest to her, she will likely prevail. "Elizabeth is a rock, and on her worst day she's more productive than 10 strong men," says her younger brother, writer-director Jay Anania. "You don't want to fight this woman, and if I were cancer, I'd get out as quickly as possible."

Still, this latest travail has inevitably reminded Edwards of the dark period that followed the loss of her son. "To be perfectly frank, there is an odd place after losing a child, where you think somehow your life is worth less," she says. "This [diagnosis] is a reminder that this is the life you've got, and you're not getting another one. Whatever has happened, you have to take this life and treasure and protect it. In a sense, having cancer takes you by the shoulders and shakes you."

The assault began on the morning of Thursday, Oct. 21, when Edwards, in the shower, first noticed a half-dollar-size lump in her right breast—"smooth, like a cyst filled with fluid, sort of like a robin's egg," she recalls. "I thought, 'Where the heck did this come from?' I hadn't noticed it the last time I checked, three weeks earlier." With husband John deep in the final throes of his vice presidential race, Edwards made a doctor's appointment for Oct. 29 in Raleigh, N.C., the couple's hometown, and decided to await the outcome before telling her husband. Despite the fact that annual mammograms are recommended for every woman over age 40, Edwards admits she hadn't had one at least since the birth of her son four years before. "It's too long to have waited," she says. "There is no excuse. I should have gotten one before now."

Edwards put her fears on hold and returned to criss-crossing the battle-ground states. Finally, on Oct. 29, she broke for the appointment with her doctor, who immediately sent her to a radiologist. "She did an ultrasound," says Edwards, "and from the look on her face, I knew it just wasn't going to be good news." That day, Edwards made the decision to call her husband, who was mid-flight on the campaign plane, but refused to allow him to stop campaigning. Says John Edwards: "I was anxious, but Elizabeth said, 'If it's not going to make any difference, let's wait until the campaign is over.'"

So they did. As her husband began researching specialists, Elizabeth received support from a tight circle of family and friends privy to the news—among them, running mate John Kerry and his wife, Teresa, a doctor's daughter who offered medical advice. On Nov. 2 the campaign finally ended in Boston, where the Edwardses awaited a victory that wasn't to be. Edwards revealed her secret to her daughter Cate, 22, in the early hours of the morning. "She just hugged me," says Edwards. "I think she's afraid of losing me."

The next day, the public glimpsed Edwards as her husband conceded the race before a national TV audience. What they didn't see was the unmarked Secret Service car waiting outside to rush the family to Massachusetts General Hospital for Elizabeth's needle biopsy. The diagnosis: invasive ductal carcinoma. "It was a very long day, and we were all running on no sleep," says Cate. "After we left the room for my mom to get the tests done, I was crying, and I thought, 'Oh my God, Cate, get a grip.'"

According to breast radiation oncologist Dr. Marisa Weiss, founder of a respected information Web site for women with breast cancer (www.breastcancer.org), the course of treatment recommended by Edwards's doctors may indicate that the cancer has spread into the lymph nodes. "It seems like she has a serious form of breast cancer," says Weiss (who cautions she has no specific knowledge of Edwards's case), "but still has a very good chance of living a long and healthy life."

As for their immediate future, the Edwardses, who've received an outpouring of support, including personal notes from the Bushes and Lynne Cheney, plan to remain in Washington until Elizabeth completes treatment. Then they plan to sell their Georgetown house and move to North Carolina, where they'll build a new home on 100 acres near Chapel Hill, including a guesthouse for Cate. "We'd like to have horses," says Elizabeth.

She has already cleared one of the most difficult moments of her illness—finding the words to explain it to her younger children. "I told them I had a lump called cancer, that there are all kinds of cancers and some are very bad," she says. "When I told them that mine is going to make my hair fall out, they shouted, 'Your hair is going to fall out!' and laughed." In fact, thoughts of those children are what most saddens her, she says. "I have a 4-year-old and 6-year-old who waited for me through the campaign, anticipating that I was going to be there. I have to be there for them. I promised."

Edwards says she is filled with optimism, quoting one of her favorite writers, the poet Emily Dickinson: "'Hope is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul,'" she says, repeating the verse from memory. "I've thought about that a lot lately. It's just a part of our nature to hope." But mixed with the hope is uncertainty. On the Sunday following her visit to the doctor in Raleigh, she recalls, "We went to church and afterwards I passed two women. One clearly had lost her hair, and she gave me a pink ribbon for breast cancer awareness month. I thanked her and she said, 'Are you a breast cancer survivor?' And I thought to myself: I don't know the answer to that."

Susan Schindehette. Jane Sims Podesta and Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C., and Lori Rozsa in Miami

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