Elizabeth Edwards: I'm in a Happy Place

The wife of former Sen. John Edwards talks to PEOPLE about her breast-cancer battle

Photo: grant delin

Elizabeth Edwards was diagnosed with breast cancer the day after her husband, John Edwards, and John Kerry lost the 2004 presidential election.

She spent 16 weeks undergoing chemotherapy, had a lumpectomy, and then had six weeks of radiation. Today, although plagued by lymphedema – numbness in the hands and feet that is a common, often lifelong effect of lymph node removal – she is cancer free.

She and John, 53, who now heads an antipoverty center, are settling into their dream home near Chapel Hill, N.C., with Emma Claire, 8, and Jack, 6, their two younger children. Daughter Cate, 24, is a student at Harvard Law School.

Edwards, 57, whose new book, Saving Graces, is excerpted in PEOPLE’s Oct. 2 issue, talks about her battle with cancer, stepping back into the spotlight and keeping an optimistic outlook.

Was it tougher battling cancer than you imagined?
Elizabeth: It overwhelmed me. I went in completely naïve. I thought, ‘I’ll just beat this thing. It’s not going to get the best of me!’ But there were long periods of time where I could barely do anything. I was so amazed there were women going through this and doing a full schedule working and taking care of children without help. That blows me away, how strong those women must be.

How did your husband react?
John was always there by my side. I cannot say enough about what a great husband he has been through all of this. John and I are so completely connected. There is nothing closer than where we are now.

After living an intensely private life after the 2004 election, how does it feel to step back into the spotlight?
I have to admit I had a little trepidation coming out of my comfort zone. I was writing and doing things with the kids and getting the house (together). I realize I’ve been talking baby talk for two years and I have to make adult conversation. If I’m not talking about the book or building the house, I get a little nervous. But it’s been a good time for our family. I’ve concentrated on that.

How do you stay optimistic?
There are lots of little munchkins around my feet, but the dragon is slain. I have lymphedema and my energy isn’t what it was, but I don’t have a thing to complain about because the cancer isn’t there.

So your hands and feet are numb?
We were finishing up building our new house and I was walking barefoot on the driveway. A construction worker asked, ‘Aren’t your feet burning?’ I told him, ‘I can’t feel a thing.’

How did you manage to type the book?
I thought my hands would hurt writing the book, and I wouldn’t be able to do it myself, but it turned out not to be the case. I knew when I had the (five cancerous) lymph nodes removed that I might be subject to lymphedema. After cancer, this isn’t bad.

How are you feeling?
I’m in a happy place. I feel really optimistic.

Former Senator John Edwards, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee, also talked to PEOPLE about his wife’s battle.

How was it watching your wife undergo breast cancer treatment?
John: Your heart’s in your throat – every time she went in for chemo, every time a test came back to see if the cancer spread. Honestly, in the beginning Elizabeth never complained the entire time.

How bad did her condition get?
I watched her get sicker and sicker from the chemo. Her hair came out and she got weak. It was hard for her to function, although she continued to try. There was a lot of pain. She had every side effect from every medication. I have such love and admiration for her. It was just an amazing thing to watch somebody you love go through that and to see (her) strength and courage.

Did you ever wonder “Why us?”
After our son Wade died (in an auto accident in 1996), we had a different perspective. This was not the worst thing that ever happened to us by a long shot. She could actually do something about it. She had something to focus on. In the case of Wade, it was over so fast.

Were you afraid she wouldn’t make it?
We were all afraid. Cate (our eldest daughter) understood because she was older. It was hard because she watched her brother die. I don’t think the two younger kids ever understood. Mom’s hair fell out, but they didn’t realize what was happening. Jack offered to shave his head. Both of us did. You know the danger, but now she’s doing great.

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