Elizabeth Edwards: Writing to Cope With Terminal Breast Cancer

In an exclusive interview, she reveals how writing her memoir helped her deal with her cancer.

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Elizabeth Edwards, wife of former Sen. John Edwards, has had more than her share of struggles in the glare of the public spotlight. She was diagnosed with breast cancer a day after her husband lost his 2004 election for vice president. Last year, after learning that her cancer had metastasized to her bones, she helped him launch an unsuccessful bid for the presidency and then had to deal with having his extramarital affair and alleged out-of-wedlock child splashed across the tabloids. This is on top of grieving the loss of her teenage son in a car accident in 1996. Now, Edwards has decided to talk about her experiences, from 1990 to today, in a new book, Resilience. I wanted to know what motivated her to spend the precious time she has left holed up in a room by herself, writing her heart out.

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Elizabeth Edwards

Here are edited excerpts of what Edwards had to say (listen to the audio podcast).

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Elizabeth Edwards' book Resilience

Why did you write this book?


I've faced a lot of adversity, and people sometimes think I'm so courageous for dealing with all of this. While I don't think I was born with any special abilities or courage, I do think I've learned from my experiences. I wanted to write about how to get through each struggle, to get it down on paper. I wish I could say that the next time something hits me it won't bother me at all because I've built up all of this experience. But each blow is separate and isn't any easier to take. I do, though, think I've become better at moving through the process of grieving. The first thing that I do before facing tomorrow is to look back at yesterdays: at my life before my son Wade died; before I was diagnosed with cancer; before my marriage problems. I really think about what my life was like during those times, which might seem counterproductive. But now I realize that, if done properly, this looking back can help you get through the shock period that knocks you off your feet. It allows you to grieve for how much you've lost and acknowledge how much that meant to you.

How are you coping with the cancer, which your doctors say is incurable?


I've had to adjust to the fact that I'll never get rid of this disease, that chemotherapy and radiation and bone scans will be a regular part of my life. And I've had to come to terms with the fact that there will be some parts of my life that I won't get to live to enjoy. My mother and grandmother both lived into their late 90s, so I know my cancer will take away decades from me, robbing me of the chance to see my children grow and know my future grandchildren. It's really hard to deal with all of that. But I'm just trying to fill the moments I do have with as much joy as possible, taking pleasure in little things like combing knots out of my 11-year-old daughter's hair. I combed knots out of my 27-year-old daughter's hair years ago and don't remember ever really enjoying it. Research studies have shown that life projects can be very valuable to metastatic cancer patients. Was this book a life project?


I think so. I was trying to paint a picture for my kids, especially my two younger ones, who may not remember fully what their early childhood was like. Though I was grieving the loss of their brother Wade—whom they never knew—not every day was hard. I wanted to give them a truthful recitation of what my life was like during the recent election. I knew I couldn't protect my children by staying silent, as my critics contend. My kids are Internet savvy. They read the news stories and know what's going on. It would have been foolhardy for me to pretend that if I didn't tell my version of it, they would be protected. In fact, I was trying to set the record straight for them. What message did you want to leave your kids with about their parents' marriage?


I wanted it to be different than the experience I had learning about my own parents' marriage. I thought it was perfect until I turned 13 and started secretly reading my mother's journals. I found out from them that my mother thought my father hadn't been faithful to her when I was a baby, which completely shattered my ideas of who they were. I wanted my children not to just see my wounds but to see that the scabs are there and that they can eventually go away. How's your marriage now?


I think in an odd way it's been helped by the cancer. We can be on the same team against this disease, and he can treat me tenderly in a way that I wasn't interested at first in having him treat me. But now I can accept this gift that he's giving me, and we're on exactly the same page. Though there are still some bad moments, most of the time we're a team; we're a family like we have been for the past 29 years. Was your husband supportive of your writing this book?


He was, though I think there's a part of him that wishes—since he's not pleased with what he did—that no one ever mentions it again. I think he also thinks that while maybe in the short term this does bring it more attention, in the long term it lets people see that human beings, even politicians, are just human beings. They make mistakes and do things that are stupid. What do you have to say to your critics who say this book is just a vendetta and that you shouldn't have written it?


I did not write this book in anger. In fact, if I got angry while writing—which happened a lot—I got up from my desk and walked away. It took a lot longer to write this book because of that! What I was trying to do here was to have a conversation about things we don't normally discuss, like the fact that our elected leaders are flawed. I also wanted to talk about living with cancer and how people choose to spend their final days. Should we hole up with our children and tell them we love them all day long? Or should we get out in the world, do things, live the lives we have left? [Note: Edwards is planning to open a furniture store in North Carolina this fall.] You wrote in your book that "we make plans and prepare for the life we dream could be, and maybe for some it happens." Did it happen for you?


I did get so many things—it's hard for me to complain about the life I've had, my wonderful family, magnificent children. But it hasn't been the life I've dreamed, partly because my dreams were unreasonable. We all grow up in a fairy-tale world hoping for dragons to slay and to live happily ever after. But the more grandiose those expectations, the more likely that we're not going to reach them. We have to reach for things, but sometimes what we want is so clearly the wrong thing.