After her breast cancer returned in March 2007, this time advanced stage 4 and incurable, Elizabeth Edwards vowed to stop Googling for information—a practice that any cancer patient knows can heighten alarm. But after recently feeling a rough patch on the back of her neck, Edwards, 58, couldn’t resist plugging in the words “skin cancer” on her computer. Mirror in hand, she was sitting in front of a screen filled with disturbing images when daughter Cate, 26, walked in. “What are you doing?” she asked. Trying to sound nonchalant, Edwards said she wanted to see if her spot matched the pictures. “I have no idea what skin cancer looks like,” Cate answered, “but I do know what a curling iron burn looks like.”
Seated beside Elizabeth at their kitchen table in Chapel Hill, N.C., surrounded by souvenirs from a recent trip to Disney World with children Emma Claire, 10, and Jack, 8, John Edwards smiles. “I hadn’t heard that one,” he says. “That’s a great story.”
Suffice it to say, when cancer is the enemy, humor is a useful weapon. “Every little everything, you just don’t know what it is,” Elizabeth says. “The truth is, you’re always afraid.” These days the news is good. “The therapy is less aggressive,” says Elizabeth. “Parts of me are better. No new growths.”
Both Edwardses, however, are growing in new directions. As Democrats wait for them to endorse a presidential candidate—a claim neither is eager to stake—John is going on the road to promote his ambitious strategy to halve the nation’s poverty rate in 10 years by, among other measures, raising the minimum wage and extending tax credits. Elizabeth is championing universal health care from her new post at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress. In a rare joint interview, the pair chatted with PEOPLE’s Sandra Sobieraj Westfall.
PEOPLE: What was the best moment during your week at Disney World?
Elizabeth: It was clearly watching the children’s faces.
John: She asked about a “moment.” It was the day with the dolphins.
P: After months of campaigning, this was something for the kids, right?
E: Our dinners [at Disney World] had to be planned around John’s running. I really feel for the wives whose husbands play golf.
J: The whole time—minus my running—was focused on the children.
P: What did it mean to them to have the campaign end?
E: It’s not like a switch went off and now politics is out of their lives.
P: Do you relish getting back in the game or will you miss taking your kids to swim practice?
J: A little of both. I love doing it, so—
E: [Waves and points to her head]
J: —and I love being with Elizabeth.
E: [Laughs] That was a little too much work.
P: The campaign was a reason to keep fighting the cancer. Did that deepen the sense of loss when it ended?
E: I had to find new ways to make sure I don’t spend the rest of my life—whatever it is—twiddling my thumbs.
P: I picture you at the think tank as a professional thorn in people’s sides.
E: Yeah! It’s probably the thing I’m very best at. John can attest to that.
J: I’m not touching that one.
E: I’m trying to advocate for truly universal health care. I’ve got opinions on most everything.
J: That I can completely attest to.
P: You recently mentioned a bump on your forehead. Was that cancer?
E: The doctors don’t know. The treatment would be the same if all the places were cancer. The reason they don’t biopsy …
J: They say it doesn’t change anything. It’s very frustrating. Of course, you want to know.
P: As you begin your poverty campaign, are you in touch with people you met along the campaign trail?
J: Yeah, these people mean a lot to us. This is not some abstract policy-wonk thing for me. It’s people’s lives.
E: I’m talking with my book editor this week. I’d maybe like to write something [about] the impact people have on you with their stories.
P: Would you do this together?
J: That would drive you crazy.
E: That’s what I was thinking. Why give you a credit line? [Laughter]
P: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are still battling it out for the Democratic nomination. Tell me one thing you like about Clinton.
E: I like Hillary’s health-care plan.
J: I like something different. I think her tenacity shows a real strength that’s inside her.
P: And Obama?
J: He really does want to bring about serious change … and it’s a great symbolic thing to have an African-American who would be President.
E: [Rolling her eyes] What about the great symbolic thing about a woman? …
J: It’s important, it’s important.
P: You must feel let down.
E: The letdown doesn’t happen on one day. If the letdown all happened on one day, it probably would be a lot harder.
J: I thought—wrong!—that my getting out would accelerate somebody being chosen.
E: One good by-product is that John left at a time when he hadn’t been part of any divisiveness. He continues to play that role.
P: Any personal projects?
E: My father died March 1 [at age 87 of heart failure]. I’m putting together a CD of pictures. [She displays the assembled photos, ending with a joyous shot of her father with Wade, their son who died at age 16 in a car accident.]
P: It’s how you might picture the two of them in heaven together.
E: Yes, right! Like, “We’re having fun, don’t worry about us!”
P: Do you feel the urgency you felt when we talked last June to get everything in order?
E: I feel a real sense of every minute counts. It’s not just when you’re onstage with bright lights on you. It’s in your kitchen and carpool and office, all of those places, that the value of your life is measured.