March 29, 2007 12:00 PM

Elizabeth and John Edwards sat down their two youngest children – Emma Claire, 8, and Jack, 6 – in the family room on the evening of March 21. There was some giggling, some talk of school that day and of Jack’s field trip to a supermarket. Then John Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina now running for the White House, changed the subject. “He said, ‘I need to tell ya’ll something,'” Elizabeth says. ” ‘I need to tell you that Mommy’s cancer is back, and it’s not going away this time.'” The kids wanted to know: Was their mom going to die?

“John was honest,” Elizabeth told PEOPLE. “He said cancer can kill. And then he said, ‘Everybody at the table who’s not going to die, raise their hands.'” Neither of the children budged. “They understood, or I hope they understood, that we’re all going to die,” she says. “The only thing we have control of is how you spend the time, that precious time.”

The next day, wearing brave smiles, the Edwardses told their news to the nation, announcing that Elizabeth, 57 – who was treated for breast cancer in 2004 – had received troubling results from a biopsy. Her cancer had reappeared, this time in one of her ribs, and is now incurable. (In subsequent comments, Elizabeth and her oncologist Dr. Lisa Carey said they are also treating spots found in her lung and right hip as if they were cancerous.) But what spawned debate was the couple’s resolve, despite Elizabeth’s condition, to continue John’s campaign to win the White House in 2008. Was Elizabeth a hero for soldiering on – or in deep denial? Was their determination to keep campaigning a sign of optimism – or unquenchable ambition?

"They're not ready to fly . . . but they've got to start learning," John (with Elizabeth, Jack and Emma Claire in '04) has said.

All the analysis – “the judgment,” as Elizabeth wearily calls it – has taken a toll on the couple. Interviewed in a Santa Monica hotel room three days after their announcement, both appeared exhausted. “We didn’t expect wall-to-wall coverage. This is an intensely personal decision about how we want to live our lives,” she says. “As long as it’s not illegal and not hurting anybody, it shouldn’t. . . .” Her sentence trails off. John, 53, stretched on the other end of the couch, stares out the open patio door at the Pacific.

According to the Edwardses, they did their own grappling with their life-and-death quandary during a 10-hour day of tests at a North Carolina hospital March 21. Elizabeth had gone in for an X-ray after cracking a rib – she had wrenched her back while moving furniture, she says, and then her husband hugged her, making matters worse – and her doctor had ordered a bone scan. Those words alone, says Elizabeth, were enough to plunge her into fear. She searched for information on the computer. “It was after I Googled ‘bone scan, ribs’ that I called John,” Elizabeth says – and he flew from Iowa immediately. Dr. Carey warned the couple that if a high volume of cancer were in the liver, “we could be talking about a very short period of time, under a year maybe,” recalls Elizabeth.

But the results showed a limited amount of cancer in her right rib. At that point, Elizabeth says, the prognosis Dr. Carey gave “went 10 years or beyond.” Carey hesitates to use numbers but says in advanced stage 4 cases such as Elizabeth’s, more than 10 years survival “is not realistic. It happens occasionally,” she says, “but is uncommon.”

Buoyed by the prospect of years rather than months, the Edwardses asked Carey if Elizabeth could physically manage the rigors of a presidential campaign. In her mind, Elizabeth had already decided: “I almost panicked with the idea that John would change course.” Even after the doctor gave them the green light, John admits to feeling “multiple conflicts” – his children’s needs, his wife’s needs, the demands of voters – but says his wife betrayed none. “She was very powerful in her belief that I needed to be president,” he says.

"If there come times when she needs me, I'll be there. Period," says John (with his wife in Las Vegas March 24).

They still had to tell their oldest daughter, Cate, 25, now at Harvard Law School. First, Elizabeth phoned Cate’s boyfriend, a Georgetown University medical student, to enlist his help with Cate’s questions – and anxieties. Then, she treated Jack and Emma Claire to a day off from school so that the three of them could fly to Boston to be with Cate. “I needed to see her,” Elizabeth says. The family visited Plymouth Rock and did “a bunch of educational things,” says Elizabeth, in what will be the younger children’s new normality as the Edwardses talk about taking them out of school and keeping them in tow on the campaign trail as much as possible. The couple have already been criticized for not devoting Elizabeth’s remaining time to family alone. In response they say the best they can do is to prepare their kids to cope with what the future may hold. “I think the best thing you can give your children is wings,” Elizabeth told The New York Times, “[to teach them to] stand by themselves in a stiff wind.”

Asked about Wade, the 16-year-old son the Edwardses buried more than a decade ago after his death in a car accident, Elizabeth’s eyes fill with tears. “The consolation of losing a child is that you have less fear of death for yourself,” she says. “But I do have other reasons to live. I have smaller children. I’d like to see them into adulthood. I’d like to see the person they marry, all those things.” She pauses, quiet. “And maybe I will.”

Friends say they aren’t so worried about the couple’s balancing act. A friend of 25 years, Hargrave McElroy, says Elizabeth has a strength “forged in fire” and energy that comes from God knows where. To Elizabeth, a decade, possibly more, to live seems like a long time. “When I think about how long it’s been since I’ve seen Wade – April 4 it will be 11 years – it seems like forever. When I think about all the things that have happened in my life, in those 11 years. . . . Eleven years or 10 years, it does not seem so short to me,” she says. “The medicine is going to catch up to this condition. It’s just a question of when. I just need to stick it out long enough for that.”

• With Michaele Ballard in Chapel Hill and Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C.

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