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'Sobering' statistics for Edwards' cancer

Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, has a 20 to 25 percent chance of surviving five years now that the breast cancer she had three years ago has metastasized into her bones and possibly her lungs.“The numbers are sobering,” NBC Chief Medical Editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira. But, she added, what every patient in Edwards’ sit
/ Source: TODAY

Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, has a 20 to 25 percent chance of surviving five years now that the breast cancer she had three years ago has metastasized into her bones and possibly her lungs.

“The numbers are sobering,” NBC Chief Medical Editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira. But, she added, what every patient in Edwards’ situation needs to know is, “You have the right to be one of that 25 percent.”

When a cancer spreads to other parts of the body, physicians no longer talk about curing the disease but about managing it, Snyderman said.

“People live longer with diseases,” she explained. But she said the question doctors ask is: “Can we now treat her so it’s manageable and she can now go on with her life?”

Once, treatment meant surgically pursuing small tumors throughout the body, a strategy that Snyderman said does not work. Edwards’ original cancer, which developed in her milk ducts, were aggressively treated with chemotherapy, surgery and radiation. Those options, Snyderman said, are out, although chemo may be tried again.

“In some ways the horse is out of the barn,” she explained. “These are microscopic cells that are sort of bad actors and they’ve spread from the primary tumor. They’ve quietly sat around for a few years and now they’re active. If you start to operate, you’re chasing a tumor here a tumor there. This is a systemic disease. You have to treat the entire body.”

The primary weapons are hormonal treatments that retard the cancer’s growth and medicines that make the bones stronger. Chemotherapy remains a possible future option, she added.

Although the cancer is in Edwards’ bones and possibly her lungs, Snyderman emphasized that it is not bone cancer. It is breast cancer that has set up residence in the bones. That changes the treatment.

Doctors no longer speak of curing such cancers, Snyderman said, but about managing them.

Elizabeth Edwards, who, like her husband, is a lawyer, told the media on Thursday that her doctors discovered the return of her cancer when she felt a pain in her side. X-rays showed a broken rib — and cancer.

It is what physicians call stage 4 cancer, meaning that it is not curable, but it is treatable.

She and her husband were upbeat throughout the press conference talking about their future with smiles, optimism and resolve.

“Elizabeth and I have been married for nearly 30 years and we will be in this every step of the way together. We will keep a positive attitude and always look for the silver lining — that's what we do,” John Edwards wrote in an e-mail sent to his supporters. “Although the cancer is no longer curable, it is treatable, and many patients in similar circumstances have lived full, energetic lives. We expect nothing less for Elizabeth. She expects to do all the things next week that she did last week.”

“The campaign goes on,” John Edwards said. “The campaign goes on strongly.”

The Edwards lost a 16-year-old son, Wade, to an auto accident in 1996. They have three other children, Catharine, who is in law school; eight-year-old Emma Claire and six-year-old Jack.

— Mike Celizic, contributor for TODAY