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Elizabeth Edwards: Her Breast Cancer Experience

Elizabeth Edwards talks with WebMD about her breast cancer, treatment, and more.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Elizabeth Edwards, wife of former senator and presidential candidate John Edwards, knows her breast cancer is not going away.

Edwards' breast cancer, first diagnosed in 2004, has recurred. It's in her bones, and, as Edwards writes in her new memoir, Resilience, "it wasn’t leaving. Not ever."

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That knowledge -- that she will one day die from breast cancer or die with it -- is at the heart of some hard-won lessons about dealing with breast cancer -- and getting aggressive about its early detection.

Edwards, who turns 60 in July, shared what she's learned about breast cancer -- and her advice for breast cancer patients and their loved ones -- in an interview with WebMD.

Finding the "Plum"

In October 2004, Edwards noticed a lump about the size of a slice of plum on the side of her breast. At the time, she was showering in a Wisconsin hotel bathroom; she was in Wisconsin supporting her husband as he campaigned as the Democratic vice presidential nominee.

Having had a harmless breast cyst before, Edwards thought the new lump was another cyst.

"I'd like to say that I found it because I was doing a breast exam," Edwards says. "No. I found it because it was just so friggin' large. In fact, I was thinking, 'How could I have not felt this yesterday?'"

The American Cancer Society considers breast self-exams an option, but not a must, for women in their 20s and older. The American Cancer Society recommends that if a woman does breast self-exams, she should ask a health professional to review her technique at her next checkup. Most breast lumps aren't cancer but should be checked by a doctor, and any breast changes -- whether found during a self-exam or not -- should be reported to a health professional right away, notes the American Cancer Society's web site. 

Edwards says she wasn't at high risk for developing breast cancer. She had an aunt who had had breast cancer, but there was no other family history of the disease.

Although having a family history of breast cancer makes breast cancer more likely, the disease doesn't run in the family for most breast cancer patients.

A week after first noticing the "plum," Edwards secretly had a mammogram and ultrasound back home in Raleigh, N.C. Next came a biopsy in Boston, the day after the presidential election, which confirmed that the "plum" was cancer. Further tests showed cancer in several lymph nodes, resulting in a diagnosis of stage II breast cancer.

"I Knew Better"

Before her breast cancer diagnosis, "I didn't get screening the way I should have," Edwards tells WebMD.

She's far from alone in that. CDC data show that in 2005, about 36% of women in their 40s, about 28% of women 50-64, and about 36% of women 65 and older hadn't gotten a mammogram in the previous two years.

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