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For a while, Edwards's life was reduced to enduring the side effects of her treatment: four semiweekly rounds of chemotherapy, followed by a regimen of the cancer-slowing drug Taxol, then a lumpectomy and radiation. "They're putting stuff in your body that if it spilled in your house, you'd put on gloves to clean it up," she says. On her best days, Edwards read to her children or sat in on John's meetings at the house. Other times she lay in bed, aching everywhere: her feet, neck, elbows, and other joints. Her fingers tingled and cramped. Her toenails separated from her skin. She lost the energy to climb stairs or lift soda bottles. After the surgery, her breast sloshed with waste fluid from surgery, which had not fully drained. "The first time you begin treatment, you think you're just going to plow through it," she says. "Then it takes a little bit away and a little bit away, and finally you've got nothing left."

She did resist one intervention. "They wanted to put a port in me," she says, "a place here that they could always take stuff out of my veins and put stuff into my veins. I didn't want it. Because then, no matter what I did, cancer would own me."

Though death was already a familiar theme for Edwards, her words on the issues she cares about have telegraphed a greater sense of urgency since that first cancer treatment. Well versed in maternal grief, she championed a woman who purchased lifesaving body armor for her son only to learn he would not be permitted to wear it in Afghanistan. She became a vocal advocate for Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey was killed in Iraq eight years to the day after Wade's death. And then there was the confrontation with Ann Coulter and the stand for lesbian and gay rights.

Edwards says her support for same-sex marriage stems directly from her upbringing. "I grew up in a very open-minded family and a variety of cultures," she says. Accustomed to seeing different lifestyles, she says she's "not threatened by what happens inside a person's house—any more by the sex of the couple than by how they paint their walls. We need to quit being afraid." John, who hails from a Southern mill town, is at "a different point on the journey," she says. Both believe it's important to discuss their disagreements openly, as she did in June. "John and I are really intent on this being a campaign based on transparency," she says.

Another cause Edwards has taken up is the importance of volunteering for medical research, something she's done from the time she received the first news in 2004. "I was the beneficiary of women who put their own health at risk," Edwards says. So far she has participated in two clinical studies: In the current one, her blood is drawn regularly so scientists can look for certain biochemical markers as she reacts to the drugs. It's not a treatment, but she hopes in the long run it will help others.

Even with this latest diagnosis, that the cancer has spread to her bones, Edwards has managed to cast her thoughts outward. Terminal disease is a great clarifier, she says: "It takes you in the direction away from the mirror and toward the window." First she focused on her children. Then she considered the upcoming presidential race, which she refers to as "our work as a couple." In particular she recalled those voters she met in 2004 who lacked health insurance. "As bad as the news was, it was impossible not to feel at some level blessed because I knew whatever care was possible, I was likely to get it," she says. "You have to be completely self-absorbed not to think about the people who don't have that. I want to make certain that the remainder of my life, however long it is, is not spent concentrating on making me yet more comfortable."

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