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A WOMAN REMEMBERED
"There are the things she taught without words ... how to continue to live your life on your own terms when it somehow becomes savaged by people you never invited into it," said Cate Edwards about mother Elizabeth, who was thrust into the national spotlight in 2004 when her husband, former Sen. John Edwards, became the Democratic nominee for Vice President. Her first and second battles with cancer again pushed her into the headlines, but it was her grace under fire – amid her husband's affair and subsequent love child – that made her an admired woman. "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," Edwards, 61, wrote in her final Facebook post, a day before she died of cancer on Dec. 7, 2010.
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A Navy brat who moved around as a child, Elizabeth Anania was ready to settle down once she met her future husband, John Edwards, while attending law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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Three months after their law school graduation, Elizabeth – wearing a $129 dress and an $11 ring – and John exchange vows July 30, 1977. She later told Oprah Winfrey that she asked him for one present: "I wanted him to be faithful to me," she says. "It was enormously important."
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Elizabeth embraces her firstborn, son Wade, who was killed at age 16 in a car accident. After his death in 1996, she retired from her law career and changed her surname to her married name, devoting much of her time to the Wade Edwards Foundation. "The consolation of losing a child is that you have less fear of death for yourself," she tells PEOPLE.
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PORTRAIT OF A FAMILY
The Edwardses pose for a family portrait with their children Cate, Emma Claire and Jack in 2002. After undergoing hormone therapy, Elizabeth gave birth to Emma Claire at 48; Jack arrived two years later. "We wanted to bring joy back into our house," Elizabeth told PEOPLE in 2004. According to daughter Cate, the new babies did just that: Emma Claire and Jack "make my parents so happy, and they're really fun," she said.
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WHITE HOUSE ASPIRATIONS
On the 2004 campaign trail (with her husband's running mate Sen. John Kerry and his wife Teresa Heinz), Elizabeth is dubbed their prompting one of Dick Cheney's top aides, Mary Matalin, to praise: "She's smart and very aggressive for her partner." While stumping, Edwards discovers a lump in her breast, and on the day Kerry concedes to George Bush, she is diagnosed with invasive ductal cancer. "From the minute this happened, not a whimper," John Edwards says of his wife. "It's all strength. I don't know anybody else who could do that. It's just amazing."
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When John returns to campaigning in 2007 – this time as a presidential candidate – the couple receives a setback: he says at a press conference. Although her disease, this time, is incurable, Elizabeth promises to be a force on the campaign trail. "I don't feel sickly. I'm ready as any person can be for this," she says. Unknown to the public at the time: Months earlier, her husband had confessed to an affair, telling Elizabeth he had a one-time lapse.
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TRUE TO HER WORD
In spite of John's infidelity and her illness, Elizabeth keeps her word, hitting the road for her husband. While she says her motto is "Don't stop living. Live until you die," she starts preparing a letter for her children after she's gone, an idea she gleaned from Terms of Endearment. "It's more than 'How do you get the core out of a head of lettuce?'" Edwards tells PEOPLE. "It's 'How you choose who you marry and what to expect from that, how you choose a church.' It's got all that butting-my-nose-into-their-lives-long-after-I'm-gone stuff."
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THE BIG HEARTBREAK
News breaks that John's "one-time lapse" was, in fact, a full-blown affair. "There was anguish – excruciating anguish – for her in dealing with this," Elizabeth's best friend Hargrave McElroy tells PEOPLE. "I always thought I was ... the kind of wife to whom a husband would be faithful," she writes in her second book, the best-selling Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life's Adversities.
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Her personal life in turmoil, Edwards still takes the time to speak before Congress last July, urging health-care reform. But a month later, she learns that her husband's mistress, Rielle Hunter, has a child. John admits that the toddler is his daughter, and Elizabeth sends her husband of 32 years packing. "She said, 'I've had it. I can't do this. I want my life back,'" her sister, Nancy Anania, tells PEOPLE.
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Tumors are found in Elizabeth's legs, spine and skull, but the ever-resilient mom says, "It's less frightening than you think." Daughter Cate (here with her mom at April's Final Four NCAA championships) has a different take: "She likes to downplay everything, but of course, I worry about her." There's one subject Elizabeth doesn't mince words about – the breakdown of her marriage – telling PEOPLE in what's become the defining quote of the scandal:
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HER FINAL APPEARANCE
On Sept. 10, a smiling Edwards makes her final public appearance at a Stand Up to Cancer event in L.A. Three months later, her doctors advise that further treatment would be ineffective; the cancer had spread to her liver. Edwards died Dec. 7 at age 61, surrounded by family and friends at her home in Chapel Hill, N.C.