By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 23, 2007
CHAPEL HILL, N.C., March 22 -- Standing in the same courtyard that hosted their wedding reception three decades earlier, former senator John Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, announced Thursday that her breast cancer has recurred and has severely worsened.
But they pledged, jointly, to carry on with his bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
"You can go cower in the corner and hide, or you can be tough and go out there," John Edwards said. "The campaign goes on. The campaign goes on strongly."
As if to prove the point, he flew to New York for a fundraiser Thursday night and his wife traveled to Boston with their two youngest children to see their older daughter at Harvard Law School. They are scheduled to fly together to Los Angeles for more fundraising Friday.
Elizabeth Edwards's oncologist, speaking to reporters after the couple left, said the breast cancer has advanced to Stage IV and has spread to her bones and possibly a lung and other organs. Lisa A. Carey, the oncologist, said the disease has worsened beyond the point of being cured -- it is so serious that no surgery can treat it. Medical treatment will be designed to slow or shrink the cancer and to help Elizabeth Edwards live comfortably.
Edwards, 57, a former lawyer known for her strong opinions and fierce protectiveness, looked at her husband and smiled throughout a hastily arranged news conference focusing on the grim details of her health. Appearing unfazed, at times jumping in to speak, she insisted she feels no pain beyond the cracked rib that alerted doctors to her relapse earlier this week.
"You can see -- I mean, I don't look sickly, I don't feel sickly," she said. "Right now, we feel incredibly optimistic."
It was a familiar image of the Edwards pair: Hit with tragic news, they clasped hands and announced plans to somehow move forward together.
Only this time -- unlike the death of their teenage son Wade in 1996, and unlike her first breast cancer diagnosis, on the eve of the presidential election in 2004 -- the future for the Edwardses appears much less certain.
For Edwards, a former trial lawyer and one-term senator from North Carolina who ran on the Democratic ticket with Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts in 2004, the news of his wife's illness came during a heavy fundraising push at the end of the first quarter of the year, at the start of the most wide-open presidential election in more than a generation. Edwards has been considered a strong contender in the Democratic field, running behind Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) in some surveys but with strong support in the early-caucus state of Iowa, which he has visited regularly over the past two years.
Sounding no less eager than her husband to continue campaigning nationwide, Elizabeth Edwards said her illness should present no obstacle to the campaign, save for more frequent visits to the doctor. Both said that they will slow down if necessary but that doctors have assured them they will not have to.
"I don't think we seriously thought about it," Edwards said, when asked if the couple had discussed suspending or ending the campaign.
Elizabeth Edwards has long played an active role in her husband's political career, and she said Thursday that she believes it is important for the country to elect him president. The candidate, asked about his mind-set at such a painful time, said managing through a crisis would be a test of any future president.
"Anyone who wants to be president of the United States needs to understand and recognize that there will be very difficult, intense, high-pressure times when judgments have to be made," Edwards said. "And if you're not able to, in a focused, thoughtful way, to deal with this kind of pressure, you're not ready to be president."
Political friends and rivals alike issued statements of good luck. At the White House, press secretary Tony Snow wished the Edwardses well and recalled his recent struggle with colon cancer. "As somebody who has been through this, Elizabeth Edwards is setting a powerful example for a lot of people, and a good and positive one," Snow said during the opening of his daily briefing. "She's being aggressive. She's living an active life."
Elizabeth Edwards had been describing herself the past two years as "cancer-free" before getting her first clue of a problem last week, when she strained herself trying to move shelves in the family's new house near Chapel Hill. When her husband came to hug her a short time later, it was a "big hug that felt uncomfortable," she said.
"I wrenched in a way, and he immediately heard a pop," she said.
The pain sent her to the doctor on Monday, and X-ray scans indicated that she had a fracture on her left side and "something suspicious" on the right side of her rib cage, Edwards said. When his wife called him in Iowa on Tuesday to report that doctors wanted to do further tests, Edwards canceled a planned event and flew home.
It was on Wednesday, in the hospital in Chapel Hill, that doctors told them her cancer had recurred. Edwards recounted the sequence of events in an opening statement to reporters, his lips quivering slightly as he said, "Her cancer is back." As they tried to contact family members across the country before word seeped out, the Edwardses scheduled a news conference for noon Thursday, triggering speculation that he might drop out of the race or suspend his bid.
Carey, an oncologist at the University of North Carolina, has treated Elizabeth Edwards for several years. Carey gave after the news conference a fuller explanation of her patient's condition, at the request of the Edwardses.
Carey said medical advancements have made Stage IV breast cancer a much more treatable illness than in the past. She said she has not settled on the precise therapy for Elizabeth Edwards but said it could include chemotherapy starting in a week or so. She declined to address the question of life expectancy, saying that in some cases the prognosis is not good, whereas other patients live "a number of years."
"This is a very variable thing," Carey said. "I don't have a crystal ball about how she's going to do."