May 18, 2009 12:00 PM

Elizabeth Edwards is not a “spa day” type of woman. So when organizers of a Montana breast cancer summit she headlined in February offered to add some pampering to her schedule, she demurred. “She didn’t want to be away from home for too long,” says Michelle Weaver-Knowles of the Community Medical Center in Missoula. “She talked about helping her kids with homework and being nervous that Oprah was coming to her house. She said, ‘Can you ever have your house clean enough for Oprah?'”

If only spelling tests and dust bunnies were the worst issues weighing on Edwards, who turns 60 in July. Instead, there is cancer—growing, spreading, incurable. And there is the aftermath of her husband John Edwards’ infidelity, again in the news not only because of a federal investigation into possible misuse of campaign funds (his mistress, Rielle Hunter, was paid $114,000 to make videos for his 2008 presidential run) but because Elizabeth herself addresses the affair in a new book, Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life’s Adversities. In it she says that after learning of his cheating, “my sense of what I meant to the people around me was … shaken.” What she doesn’t say is just as telling: She appears not to have considered divorce nor leaving their Chapel Hill, N.C., home. “Neither one of us is out the door,” she tells Oprah Winfrey in an interview to air May 7. Then asked, “Are you still in love with him?” she replies, “You know, that’s a complicated question.”

Though the couple have been spotted out at dinners or at college basketball games with their kids, looking “smiling and happy,” according to one observer, Edwards says she has struggled to forgive her husband of 31 years. “I am imperfect in a million ways,” she says in the volume, as slim and fervent as a bedside prayer book, “but I always thought I was … the kind of wife to whom a husband would be faithful.”

Learning otherwise made her literally sick. Edwards screamed, cried and vomited when, in December 2006, her husband described a one-time lapse precipitated by the videographer’s come-on line, “You are so hot.” Elizabeth, who wanted him to end his White House dreams then, did not learn the truth—that the affair was ongoing—until a year later, after John was forced from the race by poor primary numbers. She was devastated. “All I wanted was my life back,” she writes. “I didn’t like this new life story.”

Edwards never names the other woman in print but does say she “targeted” her husband and is “pathetic.” Nor does she address rumors that the daughter to whom Hunter gave birth in February 2008 could be John’s. When Winfrey raises the baby issue, Elizabeth says, “It doesn’t look like my children, but I don’t have any idea.” (John has said the child is not his; a married former campaign staffer, Andrew Young, claimed paternity.)

These days John, 55, busies himself with the schedules of their two younger children, Jack, 8, and Emma Claire, 11; paid speeches on poverty; and more hands-on work in India and elsewhere. John Moylan, a friend of the former political golden boy’s, says forgiveness is “day-by-day” for the couple. “But John and Elizabeth love one another. Period. End of story.”

Yet there is more to the story that Edwards alternately calls tragic and blessed. When her cancer returned three months after John’s confession, she writes, “I needed him to stand with me.” He did, and later asked her to renew their marriage vows for their 30th anniversary in July ’07. Then, last Christmas, with daughter Cate, 27, home from law school, came more bad news: The metastasized Stage 4 breast cancer is spreading further. Now back in chemotherapy and angry there are no new drugs to try, she has moments, she writes, “when I believe death is only a whisper away.”

But hers is not a story of surrender, and in Resilience she returns to the central tragedy she pressed through earlier in her life: the 1996 death of her 16-year-old son Wade in a car accident. “Among bereaved parents, a common thread is that we have already faced the worst days of our lives,” says Gordon Livingston, a friend Edwards made through a grieving parents support group. “Elizabeth has that strength.”

About dying, she tells Winfrey, “It’s not as frightening. If there’s an ever after—please, please, please—I would be leaving part of my family, but I can … join another party and wait for that day when we’re all together again.”

As much as she hates appearing in the tabloids, she sees an upside in how continued interest in her story allows her to advocate for cancer patients and agitate for national health care. Combining her twin loves of shopping and decorating, soon she will open a furniture store called Red Window that she has stocked with Italian mosaic tables and animal-print upholstery. “I wish I had half her energy,” says Weaver-Knowles of the Montana center. “She’s doing things, planning for the future.” Edwards, who admits she fears being replaced when she’s gone, often thinks of grandchildren she likely will never hold. They will hear stories of her, she writes. “They will be able to say that she stood in the storm, and when the wind did not blow her way—and it surely has not—she adjusted her sails.”

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