Chapel Hill, N.C. — Elizabeth Edwards, the political wife whose public battle with breast cancer, handling of marital infidelity and continued advocacy for the downtrodden raised her profile above that of her husband, died Tuesday.
Edwards, 61, died at her Chapel Hill home, where family and friends had gathered in recent days after doctors informed her that her cancer had spread and recommended that she not undergo further treatment.
"Today, we have lost the comfort of Elizabeth's presence, but she remains the heart of this family. We love her and will never know anyone more inspiring or full of life," the Edwards family said in a statement. "On behalf of Elizabeth, we want to express our gratitude to the thousands of kindred spirits who moved and inspired her along the way. Your support and prayers touched our entire family."
The family asked that people make donations to the Wade Edwards Foundation, which supports a computer lab for high school students in Raleigh.
Edwards was first diagnosed with cancer in the waning days of the 2004 presidential campaign, when her husband, then-U.S. Sen. John Edwards, was the Democratic nominee for vice president. The couple didn't disclose her illness until after the election.
The cancer went into remission after surgery and months of treatment, but it resurfaced in early 2007, as John Edwards was mounting a second run at the White House. The Edwardses agreed at the time that they wouldn't allow the cancer to derail his candidacy.
Because the cancer had moved into her bones, her doctors said at that time that it was no longer curable but could be treated.
Condolences poured in from across the political spectrum late Tuesday, but a spokeswoman for John Edwards said he likely wouldn't make a public statement about his estranged wife's death until Wednesday.
"In her life, Elizabeth Edwards knew tragedy and pain. Many others would have turned inward; many others in the face of such adversity would have given up. But through all that she endured, Elizabeth revealed a kind of fortitude and grace that will long remain a source of inspiration," President Barack Obama said in a statement.
“Brooke and I were saddened to learn this afternoon of the passing of Elizabeth Edwards," U.S. Sen. Richard Burr said in a statement. "She was a passionate advocate for issues she believed in and a caring and loving mother. Her legacy should serve as an inspiration to all of us. Her life was not without tragedy and adversity, yet through it all, she fought for her family and faced every challenge with courage, poise and grace."
The daughter of a decorated Navy pilot, Mary Elizabeth Anania spent her childhood at military bases in the U.S. and Japan. She met John Edwards while they both attended the University of North Carolina School of Law, and they married in 1977 during the same week they both took the bar exam.
Elizabeth Edwards dazzled her future husband and her classmates with her intelligence, humor, and grit. One classmate later recalled how she could stop a law professor cold after a 20-minute grilling on a case.
"The smartest lawyer I know is my wife, Elizabeth," John Edwards once said.
"From the time she was a toddler, she was extremely impassioned, blazingly intelligent," said her brother, Jay Anania, a New York film director.
After briefly living in Nashville, Tenn., the Edwardses moved to Raleigh to pursue their legal careers. While her husband built a name for himself as a successful personal-injury lawyer, Elizabeth Edwards first worked for the state Attorney General's Office before becoming a bankruptcy attorney.
They had two children, son Wade and daughter Cate.
In 1996, Wade Edwards, who was 16 at the time, was killed in a wreck while driving from Raleigh to the family's beach house on Figure Eight Island, near Wilmington. To deal with her grief, Elizabeth Edwards retired from practicing law and withdrew from interacting with friends. Later, she found solace by spending countless hours in online bereavement chat rooms.
"Connections have enriched and sustained me; they have strengthened me by holding me up when I needed it, and they have strengthened me by letting me hold up my end when it was needed," she wrote in her 2006 memoir, "Saving Graces."
To fill the void left by Wade's death, the Edwardses decided to have more children, and Elizabeth delivered Emma Claire when she was 48 and Jack when she was 50.
"She loves being a mother. It's a role that she esteems more highly than any other, despite the fact that she is extremely active in other things," Anania once said.
She added the role of political wife in 1998, when John Edwards' decision to run against Republican U.S. Sen. Lauch Faircloth pulled the family into the public spotlight. His populist appeal and positive campaign propelled him to victory and took the family to Washington, D.C.
Cancer on campaign trail
John Edwards rose quickly through the national Democratic Party ranks, and in 2004, presidential nominee John Kerry named his as his running mate, putting Elizabeth and her young children on the campaign trail nationwide.
She drew high marks from reporters covering the election and from people attending campaign rallies for her intelligence and candor, according to news reports at the time. Yet, it was her revelation days after the Kerry-Edwards ticket lost in the November election that she had breast cancer that garnered her respect and an outpouring of support from across the country.
"Elizabeth is as strong a person as I've ever known. Together, our family will beat this," John Edwards said at the time.
Following the election loss and her cancer treatment, Elizabeth Edwards wrote "Saving Graces," the first of her two books on how she overcame adversity in her life.
"I had learned long ago that it was typically the most ordinary days that the careful pieces of life can break away and shatter," she wrote in the book.
John Edwards' affair
Within three months of John Edwards entering the 2008 presidential race, Elizabeth learned that her cancer had returned and had metastasized to her bones. Still, she refused to allow her husband to end his campaign, saying she felt fine and believed in his cause.
"We're always going to look for the silver lining. That's who we are as people," she said at the time.
By then, John Edwards was already having an extramarital affair with Rielle Hunter, who had been hired to produce promotional campaign videos. Elizabeth Edwards said in her second book, "Resilience," that she wanted him to end his campaign as soon as she learned of the affair to protect her family's privacy, but she stood by his side as he continued.
John Edwards didn't acknowledge the affair until August 2008, months after he dropped out of the presidential race. In January 2010, he admitted that he was the father of Hunter's daughter, who was born in February 2008.
The affair became tabloid fodder, and Elizabeth Edwards was alternately portrayed as the suffering wife or a schemer who hid the truth in an effort to win the White House.
The Edwardses separated in late 2009 after 32 years of marriage.
Health care advocate
Since the end of John Edwards' 2008 campaign, Elizabeth Edwards kept a low-profile, opening a furniture store in downtown Chapel Hill. She also served as a fellow at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C., and made occasional speaking appearances to promote her books or advocate for health care issues.
She advised Barack Obama on health care issues during the later stages of his 2008 presidential campaign and testified before Congress during the months of debate the led to the passage of the national health care reform legislation in March.
Edwards used her own experience with cancer to show the need that every American have access to affordable health insurance and care.
"The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered," Edwards wrote on her Facebook page Monday. "We know that. And yes, there are certainly times when we aren't able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It's called being human.
"But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that, I am grateful."