Elizabeth Edwards: Realistic About Her Prognosis

After disclosing that her breast cancer, first diagnosed before the 2004 election, had spread to her bones, Elizabeth Edwards became a symbol of how to cope with recurrence. The wife of Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards, Elizabeth sat down with NEWSWEEK's Jonathan Alter at the Edwardses' new house in Chapel Hill, N.C. Excerpts:

ALTER: How are you feeling physically?
EDWARDS: Fine. I had a broken rib, a fairly benign condition, but that's the only uncomfortable part.

Let's talk about what I think a lot of cancer survivors think of as being almost harder than the physical pain: the emotional cost.
When I was first diagnosed, I was going to beat this. I was going to be the champion of cancer. And I don't have that feeling now. The cancer will eventually kill me. It's going to win this fight. I come from a family of women who live into their 90s, so it's taken something real from me. There was a time during the day when we were getting test results when I felt more despair than I ever felt in any of the time I had the breast cancer. I have a lot that I intend to do in this life. We're here at the house. I'm going to build paths through these woods so we can take long walks that I intended to take when I was 80. And I have a 6-year-old son. I was going to hold his children someday. Now I'm thinking I have only a slim chance of seeing him graduate high school. How do I accomplish, in what time I've got left, all that I'm meant to do? I'm writing a letter to my kids. It gives them something to hold on to and because you've got to butt yourself into their lives even after you're gone.

You wrote in your book, "Saving Graces," that nothing can be as bad as your son Wade's death 11 years ago in a car accident.
It's odd to think of Wade's death as having given us gifts, but it gave us quite a few. We just assume we'll be able to do something next year or 10 years from now. How many of us have said, "I'm going to work in a soup kitchen next Christmas, I'm going to do that good thing"? And we all put it off. And one of the things that Wade's death taught us is that we can control what we do during the day, during each day. Other than that, we really can't control very much. Nothing we could do could change that one fact we wanted to change more than anything.

You've kept God out of the public discussion of your situation. Why?
I had to think about a God who would not save my son. Wade was—and I have lots of evidence; it's not just his mother saying it—a gentle and good boy. He reached out to people who were misfits and outcasts all the time. He could not stand for people to say nasty things about other people; he just didn't want it. For a 16-year-old boy, he was really extraordinary in this regard. I wish I could take credit for it, but I can't. You'd think that if God was going to protect somebody, he'd protect that boy. But not only did he not protect him, the wind blew him from the road. The hand of God blew him from the road. So I had to think, "What kind of God do I have that doesn't intervene—in fact, may even participate—in the death of this good boy?" I talk about it in the book, that I had to accept that my God was a God who promised enlightenment and salvation. And that's all. Didn't promise us protection. I've had to come to grips with a God that fits my own experience, which is, my God could not be offering protection and not have protected my boy.

You didn't lose your faith, you changed your faith? Or did you lose it for a time?
I'm not praying for God to save me from cancer. I'm not. God will enlighten me when the time comes. And if I've done the right thing, I will be enlightened. And if I believe, I'll be saved. And that's all he promises me.

Are you clear to say pretty much what you want—
Because of the cancer?

In the first hours after the diagnosis, the campaign is probably glad there was no reporter around. Because I was feeling like, all right, I am completely free to say whatever I want.

What do you say to the Rush Limbaughs of the world who have the nerve to judge how you should cope with your disease?
Words don't bother me. If John had pulled out of the race, they would have said, "Oh, he was failing in this race and this was just an excuse to get out." This is a no-win situation with those folks, and you just have to accept it. But what you hate is that other people might listen and say, "Oh, that's right, it's our job to tell them what is right." There's going to be a day before each of us die, and you have to think a little bit about how you want that day filled. Maybe when you're doing that judging thing, think about how you want the day before you die to look. I want that to be a productive day about which I am enormously proud, as opposed to a day where I had the covers pulled up over my head. That's unbelievably important to me. And if somebody is judging me, and doesn't hear me say that, maybe it's partly my fault for not saying it clearly and maybe it's their fault for not thinking about it.

Is some of the criticism about what you and John said about giving the kids "wings" just old "Mommy Wars" stuff?
Having lost a child, I promise you that making certain that I do not have regrets when we finally say goodbye is really important to me. I think the hardest question—and this, I think, we haven't adequately explained to people—is the children. I think we've pretty much settled on what it is we're going to do. I think the children will finish out the school year and then, in the fall, they'll travel with us. We will home-school them. We'll employ a tutor to travel with us to help teach them. I hope it will be an extraordinary experience for them.

If you go to doctors and they say, "Look, there's this drug that's in clinical trials right now. It's no guarantees. We have no long-term data on it. It is going to make you sick, your hair is going to fall out," are you going to do it?
Yes. I'm going to do it. I have an obligation to try to live as long as I can for my family. So if I campaign less or if I campaign with a wig, then I'll do those things.