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How to Cope When Breast Cancer Returns

The lessons to be learned from Elizabeth Edwards -- very public battle with cancer recurrence.
By Melanie D. G. Kaplan
WebMD Magazine - Feature

When Elizabeth Edwards announced in March that her breast cancer had returned, her peers -- other breast cancer survivors -- expressed a range of emotions. Topping the list was empathy for Edwards, whose cancer had spread to her bones. There was also pride in her bravery: She chose to be open and honest about an intensely personal health issue. Others found themselves reliving their own diagnoses. And, of course, many could not help but give way to gnawing worry about their own health. Edwards' announcement was a reminder that cancer can and sometimes does return.

However they reacted, many people -- not just survivors and their families and friends -- paid close attention to the wife of presidential candidate John Edwards. And they are likely to keep paying attention over the next year, as she commits herself to living in the national spotlight alongside her husband in his bid for the presidency.

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By deciding to continue as an active player in the campaign, Edwards, 58, who was first diagnosed in 2004 when her husband was the Democratic vice presidential candidate, has made a powerful statement to all women: You can go on living, even after a diagnosis of recurrence.

"The good part of the story is if next year Elizabeth Edwards is still seen being active, campaigning for her husband," says Gary Freedman, MD, attending physician in radiation oncology and director of the Breast Radiation Program at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. "It could give women hope that all is not over and they still have many years of quality life, which Mrs. Edwards is hoping to have."

Earla Marshall, 52, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001 and again in 2003, says she feels connected with Edwards on a deep level because of her own experiences. "[We are] on the same journey," says the Ellwood City, Pa., small-business owner. "It's great for her to be so honest and upfront with her feelings. I believe a lot of women are stronger than they realize, and when faced with certain adversities, you come out on the other side -- with that added power -- and you should encourage and pass that on to others."

Ros Innerfield, 77, another survivor who has recurrent breast cancer, says she is glad to see Edwards "show that you can talk about [your health problems] and then get on with your life. It's not something to shove in a closet that you've had a recurrence." Innerfield, who lives in Oceanside, N.Y., on Long Island, says she's noticed Edwards has become more outspoken in her husband's campaign over the last several months, which she finds inspiring. "I think it shows that this difficult problem in her life has made her stronger and more purposeful in what she believes in."

In a televised 60 Minutes interview the week after her announcement, Edwards, a lawyer until she retired in 1996, told Katie Couric that dying with cancer concerns her less than living with cancer. "Concentrate on the things that matter to you," she said. "We're all going to die. And I pretty much know what I'm going to die of now. But I do want to live as full and normal a life as I can from this point on."

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