It’s a rainy Friday in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and the long, winding path to Elizabeth and John Edwards’ home is sprinkled with autumn leaves. Nestled on more than 100 acres, the Edwards’ property is private and tranquil, a secluded and spacious retreat for its well-known occupants. But the home has also been designed to be warm and welcoming, and visitors ﬁnd that it accurately mirrors the personalities of its famous residents.
Edwards sits on a large, comfortable sofa in her living room. As she speaks, her bright blue eyes sparkle with intensity. Whether talking about the need for health care reform, plans for her new retail venture or her attitude on living with incurable breast cancer, Edwards is relaxed, erudite and refreshingly honest.
“I never had any physical problems of any kind until I had cancer,” Edwards explains. “So now when I have a new symptom and the doctors say it’s related to stress, I think that’s really remote. I tell them, ‘You know, I lost a son, and that’s a lot more stressful by any measure.’ This is not from stress.”
Living with Pain
Elizabeth Edwards became a familiar face in the national spotlight when she joined her husband, John, on the presidential campaign trail in 2004 and 2008. Now, nearly a year after her husband ended his quest for the White House, they continue to raise their family and deal with the challenges of Elizabeth’s battle against cancer.
Diagnosed with breast cancer more than four years ago, Edwards underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Published in 2006, her ﬁrst book, Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength from Friends and Strangers, offers her commentary on surviving cancer and the loss of her son, Wade, who was killed in an automobile accident in 1996.
“Even though I was afraid of what breast cancer would mean to my family, and even though I didn’t want my parents or my children to have to hear that I had cancer, I really was at peace about the disease,” Edwards wrote in Saving Graces. “I have sometimes talked about the strange gift that comes with the awful tragedy of losing a child. I had already been through the worst, I believed; we all had, and I had the gift of knowing that nothing will ever be as bad as that. The worst day of my life had already come. And I knew that I had a chance to beat this, a chance my son never had. I was resolved, not defeated.
“Most of the pain I have now isn’t caused by the disease, but from the treatment,” she explains. “Since this is the treatment that’s keeping me alive, I say to myself, ‘All right, you have two choices: you could die from this disease or you can have this pain that keeps you alive. It’s an easy deal to make. There will be a time that will come when it’s the disease that causes me pain, but I’m just not there, so I think I’m very blessed.’”
Edwards—“Mary Beth” to her family—is getting ready for a late lunch with her sister and mother. However, before the trio sits down for their mid-afternoon meal, Edwards will select paint colors for her new store, Red Window, an eclectic retail shop that she is opening in Chapel Hill. When asked how she has time to begin another project, Edwards smiles and explains that the store is an important part of coping.
“One of the reasons I’m doing this is because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” she says. “It gives me something to think about instead of concentrating on me or whatever my problems are.
“It’s like I have this cough, except when I’m doing such-and-such, and then I don’t notice the cough,” Edwards continues. “When I’m doing the stuff I like to do for the store, nothing else exists, and it’s great.”
“Falling into Something Else”
Edwards’ schedule is a mix of professional appearances, advocacy for health care reform, preparation for Red Window, Little League games and practices and bimonthly chemo sessions. On any given day, she might to another state for an interview, or recently, to New York for work on Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Usually back home in time to help ten-year-old daughter Emma Claire and eight-year-old son Jack with homework, Edwards says that she enjoys her busy calendar. Her eldest daughter, Cate, attends Harvard Law School—and the 59-year-old attorney and author says that although her life can be hectic, she wouldn’t change a thing.
“Focusing on other things is probably the single most important thing you can do,” she says. “You can either fall into the disease and the pain or you can fall into something else. I think it’s so much better to fall into something else.”
Life Lessons for Her Children
The Edwards home is much like many households with school-age children. Art in primary colors is framed and holds a prominent visual position in many of the rooms, and snacks for lunches are piled high in a basket in the kitchen. Books like Leonardo’s Nephew: Essays on Art and Artists share space with favorite selections from the Barnes and Noble kids’ section, and boxes delivered earlier from Federal Express wait by the door to be opened. Family pictures are everywhere, and a walk down the breezeway from the main residence to “the barn” serves as a photographic journey of the family’s life, documenting beach vacations along with political campaigns. It’s obvious that the daily routine is very much intertwined with the children’s schedules, and Edwards explains that her goal is to give her two youngest a well-rounded perspective.
“It would be easy to say that I’m going to devote every single minute of the rest of my life to my children, but part of my responsibility as a parent is to teach them other life lessons as well,” says Edwards. “My children know that I love them, and if I devoted every minute to them, then they would know that I really love them. But I also have to teach them about how they should spend their lives. I want them to know that when bad things happen, you don’t throw in the towel. Instead, whatever you thought was important to fight for, maybe you fight for it even more. And whatever dream was tucked back away some place, maybe it’s time to pull that out. That’s what I would like them to take with them into adulthood.”
Elizabeth on Health Care Reform
Although the issue of the economy dominated the recent presidential election, Edwards continues to speak out for health care reform. She hopes that her advocacy will help people realize that health care reform is an important part of any long-term economic solution, and she is passionate about the need for change.
“People don’t recognize that health care is a huge part of the economic problem,” explains Edwards. “Half of all the bankruptcies in this country are tied to health care costs, as well as half of all the foreclosures. These happen when people have significant medical costs to pay because they are uninsured, underinsured or have to miss a lot of work. All of these things create economic pressures on families and can send them into a foreclosure. The sub-prime mortgages are only part of the situation.
“There are many things that we can do to address health care,” Edwards continues. “First, we need to bring down the cost of health care by making sure everyone is covered. Accounting ofﬁces at hospitals bill one rate for insured people and another for uninsured, so even if you don’t think it’s the moral thing to do, it’s economical because something like keeping two entire sets of ‘books’ adds to the cost for everyone.
“We also need more aggressive screening and intervention,” says Edwards. “Waiting until a condition has progressed to a more serious stage is a foolhardy way to try to save costs. For example, my mother has osteoporosis, but we caught it early, and now she just takes a pill every day to treat it. Diabetes is another condition that comes to mind. It’s less expensive to treat a condition at the earliest possible point.”
In addition to her health care work, Red Windows and the family’s lineup of Carolina basketball games, movie nights and Little League games, Edwards is also at work on her second book. Aptly titled Resilience, the book will highlight Edwards’ approach to overcoming challenges.
“This book is about how you pull yourself out of whatever might be hitting you,” she says. “It’s easy to see someone at a distance and say, ‘Oh, they can cope because they have a nice home or a lot of support,’ but you don’t need perfection or an unusual amount of strength to make it through. It’s really just a matter of making the decision that how your life turns out is your choice.
“I think about that movie Groundhog Day, and how Bill Murray’s character kept doing the same thing over and over and getting the same reaction from Andie McDowell,” Edwards explains. “I think the point of the movie is that the only way to have other people change is if you change. You can change you, and that can change everyone else.” And with a nod to the Leonard Cohen quote stenciled over her kitchen door, Edwards explains that she is determined to embrace the unexpected, to set her own course, however hectic that might be.
“I think about what it is that I want, and then I do the things that will make that happen,” she concludes. “Maybe it all comes down to living a little more vigorously. I know that it won’t be perfect, but in some ways, it might even be better than expected.”
Lower your Risk
Routine screening is the single most important factor in surviving breast cancer. Early diagnosis allows physicians to treat patients before the cancer has spread outside the breast. However, there are also several lifestyle choices that can have an impact on preventing breast cancer. Women should consider implementing the following:
• Get an annual mammogram after age 40, sooner if you have a family history of breast cancer.
• Exercise regularly.
• Don’t smoke.
• Limit alcohol consumption to no more than one glass of wine or beer per day.
• Maintain a healthy weight.
• Get adequate rest.