Elizabeth Edwards (1949-2010)

By Emily Prestley

  • "You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces -- my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope. These graces have carried me through difficult times and they have brought more joy to the good times than I ever could have imagined.
  • ... There are certainly times when we aren't able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It's called being human. But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful. It isn't possible to put into words the love and gratitude I feel to everyone who has and continues to support and inspire me every day. To you I simply say: you know."
  • -Elizabeth Edwards, on her Facebook page, December 6, 2010



Elizabeth Edwards was born on July 3, 1949 in Jacksonville, Florida --- the beginning of a life filled with great achievement and perserverance. As the daughter of a United States Navy pilot, Elizabeth and her family moved around frequently, and for some time during her childhood she lived in Japan. She was a graduate of the University of North Carolina with a degree in English, and further pursued a degree in law from the same university. It was there that she met John Edwards, whom she wed in 1977. After law school, Edwards served as a law clerk for one year, and advanced to become an associate at other law firms in the area, ultimately working as an attorney at the Attorney General's office. John and Elizabeth Edwards had four children together: Wade, Catharine, Emma Claire, and Jack. However, tragedy struck the Edwards family when then 16-year-old Wade was killed in a fatal car accident in 1996. From then on, Elizabeth retired as a practicing attorney at law and began to devote much of her time to the Wade Edwards Foundation in honor of her son, which funds educational pursuits for children and schools. By 2004, John Edwards was well into his vice-presidential campaign on the democratic ticket next to then presidential candidate, John Kerry, and Elizabeth was by his side every step along the campaign trail. But on November 3, 2004, the Edwards family received shocking news. As John Kerry and John Edwards saw their defeat in the 2004 election, Elizabeth was diagnosed with breast cancer. From 2004 to 2005, Elizabeth underwent several different treatments to prevent the spread of the cancer. After the series of treatments, the breast cancer went into remission, but relapsed in 2007 when the cancer metastasized to her bones. She described her struggles with cancer in her two New York Times Bestselling books, Resilience and Saving Grace: Finding Solace and Strength from Friends and Strangers. Despite her disease, Elizabeth again campaigned with her husband as he sought the primary election to the democratic ticket for the 2008 presidential election. But before the primary ballots could be cast, on August 8, 2008, Elizabeth's husband, John Edwards, admitted to an extramaritial affair with one of his campaign workers, Rielle Hunter. John Edwards failed to secure the democratic nomination that year, but Elizabeth continued to advise the democratic candidate, Senator Barack Obama. Fast-forward to December 2010: Elizabeth's cancer took a turn for the worse, spreading to her liver. Doctors advised Elizabeth to not pursue any further treatment, as it was not likely that it would improve her prognosis. On December 7, 2010, Elizabeth Edwards passed away, surrounded by friends and family.


Breast cancer is characterized by the presence of cancerous cells found in the breast tissue of either males or females, although it is far more common in females. According to 2010 statistics, 1 in 8 women will be afflicted with breast cancer in the United States, and unfortunately 1 in 35 women will not survive the disease. In most cases, breast cancer originates and evolves from a small, usually benign, tumor of cancerous cells that becomes malignant and metastasizes to other organs. Often, these tumors form because of a mutation in what are called tumor suppressor genes such a BRCA1 and BRCA2, which, when functioning, prevent tumors from forming by controlling how frequently cells divide. Many people come into contact with many risk factors throughout their lives that increase their likelihood of developing breast cancer. Common risk factors for breast cancer include age, family history, genetic defects in genes such as BRCA1 or BRCA2, race, personal history of cancer, and exposure to radiation. Breast cancer can be more easily treated when it is detected earlier rather than later. Certain symptoms common to breast cancer, including swelling, skin irritation/dimpling, pain in the breast/nipple, inward turning nipples, redness/scaliness/thickening of the skin of the breast, or nipple discharge other than breast milk should be seen as serious warning signs. If or before any of these symptoms arise, there are many ways to detect breast cancer. Mammograms, self-examinations, and MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) are common ways of detecting breast cancer. Once diagnosed, the cancer is categorized based upon its size, invasivity, and metastasis to other organs of the body, specifically the lymph nodes. There are several distinct stages that doctors use to classify the progression of breast cancer:
    • Stage 0 - Cancer is non-invasive
    • Stage I - Cancer has not yet spread to the lymph nodes, but the cancerous tumor measures up to 2 cm
    • Stage IIA - Cancer has spread to the lymph nodes located under the arm OR the tumor is <2 cm large and has spread to the lymph nodes under the arm OR the tumor is between 2 cm and 5 cm and has not spread to the lymph nodes
    • Stage IIB - Tumor is between 2 cm and 5 cm and has spread to the lymph nodes under the arm OR the tumor is of any size and the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, which have begun to conglomerate
    • Stage IIIA - No tumor has been located, but the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes under the arm and other nearby lymph nodes OR the cancer is of any size and has spread to the lymph nodes under the arm which have begun to conglomerate
    • Stage IIIB - Cancer has spread across the chest area and to most surrounding lymph nodes
    • Stage IIIC - Seemingly invisible tumor, yet cancer has spread across the chest to most of the surrounding lymph nodes and tissues
    • Stage IV - Cancer has metastasized to distant organs such as the brain, skin, liver and bones


There are many different methods that can be utilized to treat breast cancer:
Administering of cancer-killing drugs; Side effects include hair lose, nausea/vomiting, high risk of infection, fatigue
Use of high-energy rays in order to kill cancer cells and/or shrink tumors; Side effects include a feeling of heaviness, sun burn, fatigue, nerve damage
Partial (lumpectomy) or complete (masectomy) removal of the breast tissue
Hormone Therapy
Use of drugs to lower the levels of estrogen (a hormone which has been found to promote the growth of breast cancer cells) usually to prevent the future reccurrence of breast cancer
Targeted Therapy
Use of less severe drugs than those used in chemotherapy that target specific genes (such as BCRA1 and BRCA2) that affect the growth of the cancer
Drugs used to prevent/treat the spread of the breast cancer to the bones

Because breast cancer is such a common form of cancer that affects so many people, much research and many clinical trials have been conducted in order to develop better and more efficient treatments and possibly a cure. Recently, many studies have been performed in order to improve upon the methods already used to treat cancer, such a chemotherapy and radiation. To make these treatments more efficient and long-lasting, scientists are moving in the direction of using many different combonations of drugs to inhibit metastasis, because that is often the direct cause of death when it comes to breast cancer. While doing this, scientists are also trying to minimize the harmful side effects that come along with the current forms of treatment that are used today. One new treatment that has been receiving a lot of attention recently is hormone therapy. The Institute of Cancer Research in Britain conducted a five-year study that was completed this year, and discovered three new genes with a link to breast cancer. With the discovery of new genes such as C6ORF211, new breast cancer drugs may finally be on the horizon. C6ORF211 is a gene that promotes the growth of tumors, which in turn are treated with hormones and chemotherapy in order to shrink and remove them. Doctors face problems with these forms of treatment though, because the hormone receptors on cancerous cells soon become resistant to the combonation of therapies, making the chances of a relapse far greater. The other two genes that were discovered were found near the DNA of the hormone receptors, making it possible to target them increase the effectiveness of current treatments. As more research is conducted, survival rates for breast cancer are sure to increase.


Throughout her life, Elizabeth Edwards faced a few risk factors that mightt have played a part in her diagnosis with breast cancer. Elizabeth's first son, Wade, was born when Elizabeth was 30. Almost 20 years later, at the age of 48, she began to undergo hormone and fertility treatments in order to have more children. The hormone estrogen that is used is known to nourish the presence of cancerous breast cells. Also, Elizabeth's child bearing late in her life may also have contributed to her cancer because of the high production of estrogen during a time when she was most susceptible to breast cancer. Strangely, Elizabeth Edwards has little family history of breast cancer --- the only woman in her family ever to be diagnosed was her aunt. Elizabeth also encountered another major risk factor that may have increased her chances of getting breast cancer: stress. After going through the death of her 16-year-old son, her husband's defeat in both the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, and the exposure of her husband's extramaritial affair and illegitimate child in 2008 while she was battling cancer must have caused her great anxiety and anguish, which can have negative effects on one's immune system. These risk factors continued to accumulate, and eventually may have played a role in her diagnosis and relapse of breast cancer.
From 2004 to 2005, Elizabeth underwent treatment. She received chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and triedaromatase inhibitors to block the production of the estrogen hormone in order to shrink her tumor. Following that series of treatments, she underwent a lumpectomy to fully remove the tumor, and she was believed to be cancer-free. But two years later, when her cancer relapsed, Elizabeth Edwards was back on chemotherapy. By 2010, the cancer had metastasized to her liver, and any further treatment would have yielded few benefits.
Although Elizabeth Edwards dedicated her charity work to her and John Edwards' charity The Wade Edwards Foundation, many charities exist today that are dedicated finding a cure for breast cancer. One of these organizations is Susan G. Komen For the Cure. This organization provides many oppurtunities for people across the world to join the fight against breast cancer through awareness and research.

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