Votes of Support for Elizabeth Edwards

The Edwardses' decision to continue with John's campaign has drawn widespread support.
The Edwardses' decision to continue with John's campaign has drawn widespread support. (
By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 31, 2007

Tammy Davis has not decided whom to support for president, and she never before felt compelled to write to a public official. But watching Elizabeth Edwards smile reassuringly as she described her incurable cancer last week touched so close to home for Davis that she sat down and wrote Edwards a lengthy, revealing e-mail.

"She reminded me so much of my 12-year-old son. He has a chronic autoimmune disease, but he doesn't want his family and friends to see him as anything but normal," said the mother of three from Raleigh, N.C. "Watching her was so personal, so emotional for me. I see in her the person he is going to grow up to be -- that passion and dignity and grace."

Edwards's announcement that her breast cancer has returned and that she has chosen not to reorder her life because of it has sparked an intense and personal national public conversation. On blogs and at Starbucks, at the dinner table and in schools, people are riveted on her plight and -- if her e-mails are any guide -- largely inspired by her choices.

In one week she has received an extraordinary 40,000 e-mails and 400 letters, passionate and thoughtful and overwhelmingly supportive of the decision by Edwards and her husband, John, to continue his campaign for president.

Elizabeth Edwards similarly received thousands of e-mails when her breast cancer was first diagnosed at the end of the 2004 presidential campaign, in which her husband was the Democratic vice presidential nominee. She wrote in her 2006 book, "Saving Graces," that she was fortified by the support in the same way that an online grief network helped pull her through the loss of the couple's 16-year-old son Wade 11 years ago.

The Edwards campaign forwarded some recent e-mails to The Washington Post after the writers agreed to be contacted.

Without fail, each one looked at Elizabeth Edwards, 57, and projected themselves -- their lives, their losses, their loved ones. Her direct way of confronting her Stage 4 cancer has struck a chord with virtually everyone: those who live with a serious illness and those who are terrified of the thought.

"We see a little bit of ourselves in that relationship," one e-mailer, Maureen O'Brien, said in an interview. And so she and her husband have talked much about the Edwardses this week. In discussing the couple's decision to stay in the race, "my husband said, 'If you told me to keep going, I would keep going.' "

More than 10 million Americans are cancer survivors, according to the American Cancer Society, which estimates that an additional 1.5 million will receive a diagnosis of cancer this year. It is a disease, experts say, that tends to worry people much more than other ailments, because virtually everyone knows someone who has been struck by it.

Medical professionals say that Edwards's announcement coupled with the news that White House spokesman Tony Snow's cancer had returned brought the subject -- and its accompanying fears -- right into people's living rooms.

In Edwards's case, people seem to be embracing her message that she is choosing to live rather than waiting to die.

Tammy Davis said she would tell her son, Grayson, about Edwards's courage. Another woman said she would walk in the Race for the Cure -- an annual fundraiser for breast cancer -- in support of Edwards. A man from Vienna, Va., said Edwards's courageous stance would inspire the country to find a cure for cancer.

"I just wanted to hug her," said Mimi Edmunds, a Tucson teacher whose teenage daughter was inexplicably stricken with a debilitating brain disease. "I don't know what came over me when I wrote. I was so moved. All of a sudden, I wanted them to win everything -- this battle and the election."

AIDS survivor Max Gutierrez of Dallas poignantly confided that the impact of his illness on his personal life has been "devastating" but that he was "inspired by the approach you both have to life in light of this sad news."

Lana Hoerner, a breast cancer survivor, chose to see many similarities between herself and Edwards -- mentioning age and devoted husbands in her e-mail. "I was literally pacing the floor at home in South Carolina waiting for your press conference to start, wanting it to NOT be what it was," she wrote. "Show them (AND ME) how to fight hard & laugh & love at the same time, please!!"

Terri Palluzzo of Grass Lake, Mich., wrote to thank Edwards for her inspiration to her own family. "My mother's little sister is dying from lung cancer and your bravery has truly given her strength," she wrote. "My mother is alone, my dad died 6 years ago, and your bravery has helped her to face the days ahead."

An Edwards campaign spokesman said the correspondence is still being catalogued, but so far only 25 people have respectfully disagreed with the decision to stay in the race. According to a USA Today/Gallup Poll, Americans support their decision by a 2-to-1 ratio. But 38 percent believe that John Edwards will eventually have to withdraw because of his wife's illness.

Laura Slap-Shelton, a psychologist who has written on grief and has a Web site devoted to it, said that many people who have never dealt with incurable illness have an "idealized view in their head of what they would do in the situation," such as quit their jobs or fly to Paris.

But Edwards's decision not to let the disease define her life, Slap-Shelton said, shows people a more realistic and hopeful avenue.

Wrote Carolyn Hampson of Morgantown, W.Va.: "After watching your press conference . . . I put away despair and cynicism."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company