Choosing to Live

John and Elizabeth Edwards discuss the recurrence of Elizabeth's cancer.
John and Elizabeth Edwards discuss the recurrence of Elizabeth's cancer. (By Gerry Broome -- Associated Press)
By Eugene Robinson
Friday, March 23, 2007

It was riveting to watch John and Elizabeth Edwards tell the world that even though her cancer has returned and is now deemed incurable, the Edwards campaign for the presidency will go on. No hiatus. No break from fundraising or travel. Just "keep your head up and keep moving and be strong," the candidate said.

How could they possibly go on? I think there are better questions to ask. How could they not go on? What choice did they have but to continue with the mission they have set for themselves, and how else could they do it but together, as a partnership?

To me, there seemed nothing forced about the smiles they wore as they made their announcement yesterday. Perhaps if Elizabeth Edwards had faced a less certain prognosis, we wouldn't have heard that quality in the couple's voices that sounded almost like serenity. But the fact that the breast cancer for which she was treated following the 2004 campaign is now established in the bone does not leave much room for ambiguity. Doctors say she can be treated -- perhaps for years -- but not cured.

So this isn't quite the same thing as facing death -- Elizabeth Edwards has a better idea of what she'll die of than most of us, but not of when. She and her husband are facing life, perhaps quite a few years of life, but with cancer an ever-present third party, an intruder who cannot be sent away.

The question, then, was not how to go about dying, but how to go on living.

John Edwards noted that they had faced this question before. "We know from our previous experience that when this happens you have a choice," he said. "You can go cower in the corner and hide, or you can be tough and go out there and stand up for what you believe in."

When I've spoken with John Edwards in the past, I've been struck by how much passion he has for the issues he cares about, especially the continuing blight of poverty. Edwards grew up poor, and through his own intelligence and determination he made himself a multimillionaire trial lawyer, then a U.S. senator, then a major-party candidate for vice president.

The other candidates believe in themselves and their ideas, too, of course. And the other candidates, like Edwards, have spouses who believe just as fiercely as the candidate does. It takes a partnership to win the White House.

But there has always seemed to be something special about the Edwards marriage. Let me rephrase that: There has never been a scintilla of doubt about their commitment to each other, never the slightest public hint that, even for an instant, they found themselves on different pages.

There must have been private doubts -- every marriage has them, and the Edwards union has withstood crises and strains that would have torn some couples apart. They have been married for 30 years. When their teenage son died in a car crash in 1996, they decided to have more children, born when Elizabeth was 48 and 50. Then there was the 2004 campaign. And then the initial cancer diagnosis, announced the day after John Kerry and Edwards conceded to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Then radiation, chemotherapy and a clean bill of health from the oncologists -- followed by nerve-racking checkups, where they always find some little anomaly, some little shadow. Usually, it's nothing.

Unless it's something.

The cancer is in the bone, but there are treatments. "I will have what will be a less debilitating kind of chemotherapy . . . for the rest of my life," she said.

Having shared so many triumphs and defeats, having endured innumerable rubber-chicken fundraisers, having shaken hands and kissed babies and done all the endless things a candidate and his spouse are required to do, Elizabeth and John Edwards had to make a decision. They don't know how her health will progress over the next months and years. They could spend that time nesting with their family. Or they could spend it amid the exhilarating chaos of a presidential campaign, grabbing for the brass ring they've long had in sight.

Do they really have a choice?

Run, John and Elizabeth, run. Enjoy the campaign, every thrilling minute. Enjoy it together.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company