When Elizabeth Edwards felt a lump in her breast in 2004, she waited until after the election to get the treatment she needed. She knew her health would become the story rather than the issues she felt passionate about, the issues that fueled her support for her husband as a vice-presidential candidate.
This is more than the usual wife who puts her wellbeing on hold to care for her husband. It was a woman living her life under a magnifying glass who knew that, should she shine light on that glass, it would scorch her and her family.
So the cancer grew and spread and by the time she got treatment, it was already stage III.
There are already people saying God killed her in retribution for her husband’s infidelity. Somebody has even blamed it on Obama. In the words of Pogo, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."
Most of us who discover a lump can head to the doctor, get tested, possibly get the bad news, and then figure out how to tell our family and friends. No so Elizabeth Edwards. She could not quietly take time off the campaign and discreetly go to the doctor. Some reporter, blogger, or unpaid busybody would have leaked the story and the woman’s pain would become the country’s gossip.
As it did. I am writing this in the middle of the night in the middle of Iowa, and you are reading it. My opinion is already out there, swirling around cyberspace. I think it is a fairly well reasoned opinion, but even if it weren’t, it still has legs.
Lucky for us, Elizabeth was a thoughtful, articulate woman who turned her negative into our positive, educating us on the ferocity of this disease and on how to deal with it under pressure. She wrote two books, advocated for better treatment for others with cancer, and was a gifted spokeswoman and role model for women throughout the world dealing with a similar diagnosis.
And with that came public support and affection. And criticism. When her cancer returned in the 2008 presidential campaign, critics said John should pull out of the race, that he and Elizabeth were putting politics ahead of her health. And when John’s affair was made public, some blamed Elizabeth for a laundry list of reasons that were nobody else’s business.
The adulation itself can be oppressive, of course. I met Elizabeth—see how I call her by her first name because we’re so close?—once during the 2008 campaign. Politics are retail in Iowa, where we get to meet candidates personally. I introduced myself and told her I’d also had breast cancer. She smiled wearily—it was the end of the day and she was no doubt exhausted and had been dealing with God-only-knows-what. I suspect she thought, “Oh my, another one.”
She could not get away from cancer, or from us.
And the misinformation lingers. In discussion boards, women say she had triple negative breast cancer—negative for estrogen and progesterone receptors, and for the human epidermal growth factor receptor, Her2. This probably grew from the fact that TNBC can be an aggressive form of cancer, and Elizabeth’s certainly seemed aggressive. But hers was estrogen and progesterone positive—the most common kind. While statistically less deadly, it still kills.
A 24/7 news cycle means that public figures never have a minute off, never a second of downtime. Add to that the option of Internet anonymity that allows us to spit even our most evil thoughts into the public well, plus commentators who make things up for a living, and public scrutiny can make even the most thoughtful person second-guess basic decisions—like when to go to the doctor.
That is the environment in which Elizabeth Edwards faced the reality of her illness. No wonder she avoided initial treatment for that lump. And shame on us for making her hesitate for fear of what we might do.
But good for her for becoming the face of reason against an unreasonable disease and unfathomable public scrutiny. If she whined, she did so in what little privacy she had left.