A Spouse with Incurable, but Treatable Disease

John and Elizabeth Edwards have announced that Elizabeth's cancer, first diagnosed in 2004, has reoccurred. That story hits close to home for people whose spouses have struggled with a disease that is incurable but treatable.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

For John and Elizabeth Edwards, this will be yet another weekend on the campaign trail, another weekend of meeting voters and shaking the money tree in search of the millions of dollars required to be a viable presidential contender. Tonight the couple attends a fundraiser in California before flying to Las Vegas for the health care forum tomorrow.

It is a packed schedule, but not unusual for a presidential candidate. However, this is not an ordinary time for the Edwards family. Yesterday they announced that her cancer, which was first diagnosed in 2004, has recurred.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Democratic Presidential Candidate): The bottom line is her cancer is back. Although when the cancer goes breast and shows in bone, which it's doing now, is no longer curable. It is completely treatable. And many patients in similar circumstances have lived many years.

SIEGEL: As NPR's senior news analyst, Ted Koppel, explains, this is a story that struck him very close to home.

TED KOPPEL: As John and Elizabeth Edwards were making their difficult announcement yesterday in Chapel Hill, my wife, Grace Anne, and I were up in New York. Grace Anne was making her first major television appearance on "Good Morning America" in her new capacity as a patient advocate for COPD. The acronym stands for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, but it incorporates such more familiar illnesses as chronic bronchitis and emphysema. She has the latter, which like Ms. Edwards' cancer, is incurable.

Incurable is one of those words that can turn your knees to jelly if you're the one with the disease, or someone who cares a great deal about the patient. But the message that Grace Anne was conveying on television yesterday morning, and the message that Elizabeth Edwards spelled out with such courage and conviction a few hours later, is that incurable does not mean untreatable. I don't know how many people in this country consider written off simply because some doctor told them that their disease can't be cured.

Even the most terrible diseases can be treated, and often so successfully that the patient lives a full and productive life for many years to come. Five and a half years ago, my wife's lung capacity was measured at 26 percent of normal. She was told that she would be on oxygen fulltime within six months. Her life expectancy was projected at no more than five years. Since that time, she's had the benefit of some treatment that has helped her begin exercising again.

She has thrown herself into the treatment and rehabilitation programs with remarkable devotion and energy. She's in better condition now than she was 10 years ago. She is not on oxygen, and her lung capacity is close to 70 percent of normal. Grace Anne is not cured. Someday, she will most likely die of her disease.

But thanks to good medical treatment, that time seems mercifully far off. Since life itself is a terminal condition, that's not such a bad deal. Indeed, the Elizabeth Edwards and Grace Anne Dorney Koppels of this world probably pack more living into what they have left than most of the rest of us. This is Ted Koppel.

(Soundbite of music)

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Watching baseball on satellite TV and a new film about watching soccer in Iran. That's coming up next on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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