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‘I didn’t test myself as often as I should have’

Elizabeth Edwards talks about her breast cancer diagnosis with ‘Today’ host Katie Couric in this exclusive interview.
/ Source: TODAY

For John and Elizabeth Edwards, it was an exhilarating time — married for 27 years, they were sharing the hope and excitement of campaigning together for one of the most important presidential elections of our generation.  But just two weeks before the election, Elizabeth found something she did not share – a lump in her breast.

As the campaign came to a climax, she kept her fears from her husband for more than a week — only telling him four days before the election, when test results on the lump alarmed her doctors. Now, 55-year-old Elizabeth, with her husband by her side, is fighting a battle of her own: breast cancer. She talks with “Today” host Katie Couric in this exclusive interview.

Elizabeth Edwards: She looked at the mammogram and then she came in — she had a pretty grim expression on her face. “You know … this is serious.  And we need to do something about this right away.”

Katie Couric: Did your heart sink?

Edwards: A little bit. A little bit. Yeah. Not so much for myself, but you know, I have young children. I have a husband who's in the middle of all this. What am I supposed to … of the presidential election. You know. What exactly is the right course of action here?  Obviously I need to go ahead and start making arrangements. But what do I say to him? 

Couric: What did you say to him? 

Edwards: I just said, “I found something in my breast last week. I thought it was going to be benign. It appears that maybe it's not.” And then he got on the phone, bless his heart, and started calling people — who do I need to see? What do I need to do? And he made the arrangements really from that point on, which was good for me because it meant I didn't have to think about it. I think it was also good for him because it gave him a way to take care of me. 

Then came Election Day. While the nation anxiously awaited the results, the Edwards anticipated what lay ahead for them. They knew Elizabeth’s needle biopsy was scheduled for the following day.

Edwards: Well, the day sort of started in the middle of the night for us, obviously.  And that's when I told Kate … that, you know, it looked pretty serious, and then we just got up in the morning and did the things with the children that we normally did. I really did not sit around thinking, "What am I going to find out later?" I pretty [much] knew what I was going to find out later that day.

And then we waited for the speeches to be given in Boston and went straight from there to Massachusetts General Hospital — [it] was a pretty long ride. You just wanted to say, “Okay, now the election stuff is over, now I want to do this.”

Couric: Were the doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital able to confirm the diagnosis? Or at least tell you the diagnosis soon after the needle biopsy was done?

Edwards: Yes. It was almost immediate that they came back in, after doing the tests. Now there [were] still some markers they were looking for that took several days, but … we knew pretty much right away.

Couric: Was it difficult to talk to [your children] Emma Claire and Jack about this? And to Kate?

Edwards: I think Kate’s the hardest, because Kate has a better appreciation than the younger children do. But it's not really hard. We have a really good, open relationship with our children in terms of conversations about things serious and not serious, and they sure have had some serious conversations in the last year.

Couric: Let's talk about your course of treatment. You're getting chemo …

Edwards: Right.

Couric: …every two weeks?

Edwards: Yes. I have about 14 more weeks of this process. During which time I’ll lose my hair, my eyebrows, apparently, maybe, during the second part of this.  The kids are pretty enthused about this and we've tried explaining it to them — that Mommy has a bump, and the bump is called cancer and I’m going to take medicine for the bump, and it's going to make my hair fall out. I might as well not have said any of the other words. Once I said my hair will fall out, nothing else interested them. So they're pretty excited about this prospect.

While Elizabeth calls herself "tough Italian stock," she still has seven rounds of chemo to go and says she knows there will be both good days and bad.

Edwards: Now, you know, I’m taking action, and we're going to do something about this. And I’m going to do everything I possibly can about it — of course there's no guarantee. But it does mean that you're fighting this as hard as you can.

While she is taking action now, she does have some regrets:

Edwards: When I look back at the choices I’ve made — I’m not a drinker, I’m not a smoker. I've tried to make reasonable choices in my life. So I don't think I’ve done things that contributed to this, to having gotten cancer. But I didn't test myself as often as I should [have], did not do mammograms as often as I should [have].

Couric: Well, I was surprised — it is what it is, and there's no reason to bemoan the past or feel guilty, because you have enough to deal with right now.

Edwards: Yeah.

Couric: But I’m just curious: Why didn't you get yearly mammograms?

Edwards: Well, partly … we moved to Washington, so you get out of the rhythm of things. But that's not an excuse. One of the great things that has happened is that people are now doing some of the things that I failed to do — they’re heeding a lesson of my negligence about my own health and taking it into their own hands to do something for themselves. 

Couric: How are you feeling?

Edwards: I'm actually feeling all right. The most you could hope for this is that you get the very best out of it that you can get. You know, I can't change the diagnosis and only in little ways can I change the ultimate result. But I can change the effect of it. I can change how much it matters to people that they heard about it, that they acted on it. And that's all I’m hoping to do.

Couric: What are you most afraid of?

Edwards: Well, of course I’m most afraid for them.  Most afraid that it doesn't turn out as we hope it will and that I have a 22-year-old daughter who's been through a lot and a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old who basically put their lives on hold, as a promise that they're going to get their parents back.That somehow I’m not able to keep that promise for them.  That's my biggest fear. But there are good things in it too.  I mean — we all get a different appreciation about the importance of the days that we've got, which is wonderful. It's really important just to concentrate on the good things that you've got from this process.

If you'd like to contact Elizabeth Edwards, you can e-mail her at: