Elizabeth Edwards, Powerful Force Behind Husband's Political Career, Loses Battle With Cancer

Oct. 20, 2009: Elizabeth Edwards testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Oct. 20, 2009: Elizabeth Edwards testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington.  (AP2009)

Elizabeth Edwards, who played a pivotal role in her husband's political career and earned admiration in her own right for her poise during her lengthy battle with breast cancer and her estrangement from John Edwards over his highly publicized affair, died Tuesday. She was 61.

She died at her North Carolina home surrounded by her three children, siblings, friends and John, the family said.

"Today we have lost the comfort of Elizabeth's presence but, she remains the heart of this family," the family said in a statement. "We love her and will never know anyone more inspiring or full of life. On behalf of Elizabeth we want to express our gratitude to the thousands of kindred spirits who moved and inspired her along the way. Your support and prayers touched our entire family."

Edwards stopped receiving treatment this month when doctors told her it would be unproductive after it spread to her liver.

She thanked all of her supporters in her final Facebook page post on Monday.

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"The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that. And yes, there are certainly times when we aren't able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It's called being human. But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful.

"It isn't possible to put into words the love and gratitude I feel to everyone who has and continues to support and inspire me every day. To you I simply say; you know."

President Obama said he offered his family's condolences to John Edwards and his family.

"I came to know and admire Elizabeth over the course of the presidential campaign," he said in a written statement. "She was a tenacious advocate for fixing our health care system and fighting poverty, and our country has benefited from the voice she gave to the cause of building a society that lifts up all those left behind."

Vice President Biden and his wife extended his "deepest sympathies" to the family.

"Elizabeth Edwards fought a brave battle against a terrible, ravaging disease that takes too many lives every day," he said in a written statement. "She was an inspiration to all who knew her, and to those who felt they knew her."

Sen. John Kerry, who chose John as his running mate in the 2004 presidential election, said his family is grateful for the time they had to get to know her in 2004.

"We have many wonderful memories of those days traveling the country and seeing firsthand Elizabeth's great affection for Cate, Jack, and Emma Claire. Today all those those moments are rushing back."

Edwards was diagnosed with breast cancer during her husband's vice presidential campaign in 2004. At the start of her husband's presidential campaign in March 2007, she announced that she had Stage 4 – terminal – cancer that had spread from her breast to her bones after a period on the mend. But she pledged to continue campaigning on behalf of her husband.

John Edwards, a former North Carolina senator, was by her side with other family members at the Chapel Hill home despite their public split after 30 years of marriage. John Edwards had an affair and fathered a child with a woman whom he hired to be his videographer on his 2008 presidential campaign.

Elizabeth Edwards went on to publish a memoir and do a speaking tour that included a retelling of his confession to her. She also focused on reforming the country's system of providing health care toward a single-payer process designed to serve all.

Edwards often wondered aloud about the plight of those who faced the same kind of physical struggle, but without her personal wealth.

Elizabeth Edwards stirred controversy with her decision to continue campaigning for her husband's 2008 presidential bid after doctors told her that her cancer had spread. But Edwards was more than a political spouse. She was chief adviser and strategist to her husband's campaigns.

The couple were law school sweethearts who married just days after they took the bar exam together in the summer of 1977.

John Edwards went on to earn millions as a trial lawyer but the pair got off to a modest start. He had to borrow money from her parents for a one-night honeymoon. She always wore her $11 wedding ring. For years they spent their anniversaries going to Wendy's, just as they did on their first one.

Elizabeth Edwards is survived by her three children. Her son, Wade, died at age 16 in a car accident in 1996.