Elizabeth Edwards: Lessons on breast cancer, in her own words.

This week we we heard the sad news that Elizabeth Edwards’ breast cancer journey had taken a turn for the worse, and less than twenty-four hours later, that she had died at the age of 61. During her six year battle with the disease, Edwards did not shy away from the public spotlight. Instead, she used her time to open the public dialog about breast cancer and healthcare reform. She wrote two books, “Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength from Friends and Strangers” and “Resiliences: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life’s Adversities .” The first concentrated on the death of her son Wade(who died in a traffic accident at the age of 16), and her diagnosis of breast cancer. The latter, on her life after a second cancer treatment and learning of her husband’s infidelity. The books have been inspirational not only to those with cancer, but to others as well. And, in the tens of thousands of letters that came in to support her during this time, she found that: “Each card, each note, was a small gesture, and yet they became- each one and together- transforming.”

We dedicate today’s blog to Elizabeth Edwards, and would like to share some of the lessons to be learned from this remarkable woman.

On Mammograms:

Edwards was initially diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, shortly after John Edwards’ unsuccessful vice-presidential run. She had put off getting a mammogram, simply because because of the inconvenience during a busy period in her life, and now had a “plum-sized” mass with lymph nodes involved. “The result of that is I found out later than I could have” about the cancer, Edwards says. “Had I done the testing I needed to do, the treatment I would have gotten might not have been as aggressive.”

“You don’t save yourself anything…The breast cancer is either there or it isn’t, whether you get screened or not. It does not change the reality. It only changes your options.”

Edwards, in an interview with WebMD, suggested that women buddy up with a friend to remind each other to make routine mammogram appointments and stick to them. “It never occurred to me to find a mammogram partner, but that would have been a great thing to do,” she says. “I wish I had done that.”

On Medical Research:

Initially treated with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, Edwards stressed the importance of volunteering for medical research, participating in a number of clinical trials during her treatment: “I was the beneficiary of women who put their own health at risk. In her book, Saving Graces, Edwards tells how she felt that the treatment she was getting had been improved by the women in clinical trials before her and that: “I knew I could not repay those women- most much braver than I, may of whom had taken a chance with their own treatment in order to help find the best treatment for all of us- except by helping the women who would come after me.”

On telling her children about her cancer:

“I think the most important thing — and the younger the member of your family is, the more important it is — is that you be incredibly honest, even though you might be giving a grammar school explanation of something,” Edwards says. “At least when your children look back on what you said to them, they will know that you were honest with them. We may not get chances to correct this, so we have to get it right the first time.”

On being an “e-Patient”:

A John Edwards support, screen name Lilfroggy, created a website, PrayersforElizabeth.org so that people could have a place to post their best wishes to Elizabeth, to send out a “thread of support. Those threads made each day easier for me.” She also used the web to check on symptoms she was having. “I checked and that allowed me to call my doctor and say, ‘These are my symptoms and I’m concerned.'” She even writes about “Googling” the term “Lumpectomy sloshing” when she was plagued by excess fluid accumulation after some additional lymph nodes were surgically removed.

On cancer being a “gift”:

“Cancer as a gift is something that I read about, as my cancer community-and we are all connected- struggles to see the silver lining. The gift is an appreciation of our own mortality and therefore an increased appreciation of the days we have. We would trade it all for the peace of good health, but I can still watch my husband comb by boy’s hair, or I can listen to Emma Claire sing the words on a birthday card she received, …and I can see Cate’s number come up on the telephone and feel a little explosion of happiness inside me. And maybe I would have felt all the same ways, but I think that at the very least I feel these small joys more keenly.”

Her last words on Facebook:

“I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces – my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope. These graces have carried me through difficult times and they have brought more joy to the good times than I ever could have imagined. The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that.”

“It isn’t possible to put into words the love and gratitude I feel to everyone who has and continues to support and inspire me every day. To you I simply say: you know. With love, Elizabeth.”


Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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