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Posted at 4:10 PM ET, 12/ 8/2010

Elizabeth Edwards and the cancer question

By Melissa Bell
Elizabeth Edwards in 2009. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

On November 3, 2004, Elizabeth Edwards announced she had breast cancer. When the news hit, Lisa Adams, a Connecticut blogger, was reeling from something closer to home: Her mother had learned that she had breast cancer that same day.

Over the years, Adams watched Edwards, linked inextricably in her mind to her mother's cancer. Edwards's cancer had gone into remission in 2006. Her mother's cancer had also gone into remission. Edwards was called a cancer survivor. Her mother was called a cancer survivor.

Then Adams was given a diagnosis of breast cancer in 2006. Three months later, Edwards's cancer had come back, much worse than before.

On Tuesday, Adams heard the news that Edwards had died and she broke down crying.

"This is what every cancer patient fears," Adams, whose cancer has since gone into remission, tells me in a phone interview. "They fear that they will initiate treatment on their cancer; it will go into remission and then it will come back. And it will come back in a way that you can't treat it."

After Edwards death Tuesday evening, a huge wave of sympathy washed across the Internet. Edwards struck a chord because of her "forthright grace" in the face of her son's death, her husband's infidelity and her cancer. However, her death also triggered an outpouring of grief because to many women she also represented a very real example of living with -- and dying of -- cancer.

Celebrities with cancer have been in the news for decades and each one brings more awareness to the disease. The New York Times health blog writes that in the 1970s the first celebrity "spokeswomen" came forward with actress Shirley Temple Black and the political wives Betty Ford and Happy Rockefeller opening up about their breast cancer. The celebrity cache has propelled pink-T-shirt races and yellow-bracelet into the forefront of charity campaigns.

Edwards, however, brought a different side to the cancer story: She was a cautionary tale. Edwards had not been conducting regular checkups and did not notice a growing lump in her breast until it was about the size of a plum.

"The sooner you detect it, the more options you have to treat it," Adams says. "If you deny yourself early detection, you will have fewer options."

Adams said that two problems often occur with celebrities and cancer: Either they play down their disease, or the media overplay it, hauling out the funereal crepe to hang. With Edwards, the cancer was initially played down, but eventually she came to accept and talk about how she would not survive. With that admission, she became a different kind of spokeswoman for the disease.

It was likely her diagnosis that spurred Edwards's interest in universal health care. It is because of her, The Post's Ezra Klein says, that President Obama's universal health -are plan ever came into existence.

Adams said the sadness over Edwards's death also comes from the vulnerable space within each cancer survivor. All too often, people try to deny the dark feelings that accompany the disease, but they exist and should not be shoved aside. The fear is always present that cancer can come back, even for survivors. It's why Adams took to her blog: to write openly about her fears and how to face them.

She also often takes to her Twitter account for what she calls her "daily nag," reminding others to get regular check ups.

"Even with the best doctors, the most advanced treatment options, and a great deal of money, Elizabeth Edwards could not beat cancer," Kathy-Ellen Kups wrote on Everyday Health.

After I finished speaking to Adams, she sent me one last message on Twitter: "It shows that while we have come so far in treating this disease, we still do not have a cure."

By Melissa Bell  | December 8, 2010; 4:10 PM ET
Categories:  The Daily Catch  
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First, I want to express my sincere sadness on the death of Elizabeth Edwards Mrs. Edwards did not have regular mammograms - over three years for which she was very transparent about. In addition, I want to know if anyone has mentioned that she also went through IVF x 2 up until she was 50. This is a lot of hormone therapy at a late age when normally your ovaries are not producing. Is this an accelerator of certain types of aggressive breast or ovarian cancers? If it is... then women who are over 40 and participating in IVF therapy need to be informed that missing a mammogram is never an option because they may be a high risk for breast cancer. Edwards cancer was only Stage II, but quite aggressive.

Just a thought. Keep the faith Ms. Adams.

Posted by: prhealth123 | December 8, 2010 6:41 PM | Report abuse

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