ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This month, we've been hearing about the backgrounds of the presidential candidates, specifically the times in their live they've had to confront difficult situations and make big decisions. For former Senator John Edwards, one of those times came just eight months ago when his wife Elizabeth was diagnosed with an incurable form of breast cancer.
As part of our series called Crunch Time, NPR's Adam Hochberg reports on their decision to continue the campaign.
ADAM HOCHBERG: There's an adage in politics that the last thing any campaign wants is a surprise. John Edwards got a most unpleasant one this spring.
Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Democratic Presidential Candidate; Former Senator, North Carolina): We came today to talk about what's happened with Elizabeth and what's happened with her health situation.
HOCHBERG: On March 22nd, three months after he officially launched his presidential bid, Edwards announced his wife's breast cancer had recurred. This time, the disease was in a form that's treatable but not curable. At a North Carolina news conference, Elizabeth stressed that she didn't feel sickly and the former senator dispelled speculation he would drop out of the race.
Mr. EDWARDS: We've been confronted with this kind of traumas and struggles already in our life. And you can go cower in the corner and hide or you can be tough and go out there and stand up for what you believe in. And we have no intention of cowering in the corner.
HOCHBERG: Friends of the Edwards family say the couple never seriously considered dropping out of the race. The day before the news conference, the former senator had cancelled his political events to join Elizabeth at the hospital where a test revealed that her cancer had spread to her bones. The diagnosis is serious. Women with similar conditions rarely survive 10 years. But the Edwardses had feared that the news might be even worse. So when the doctor told them there was no medical reason to stop traveling, they didn't hesitate to continue the campaign.
Hargrave McElroy is Elizabeth's longtime friend and personal assistant.
Ms. HARGRAVE McELROY (Elizabeth Edwards's Friend and Personal Assistant): There were moments that day that they were apprehensive about what the doctor was going to tell them. I mean, they had gone to the, you know, worst case in their minds and had been thinking, well, if that's what it is, then we can't continue. But it wasn't, and so they were sort of relieved. And I think it made it easier for them to say, well, of course, if that's the deal, we're still in.
HOCHBERG: McElroy says the Edwardses were taken aback when their decision proved controversial. Katie Couric asked the couple if they were in denial. A New York Times story questioned whether the former senator was being driven by courage or callous disregard. But McElroy says there are few things the Edwardses would rather be doing than campaigning.
Ms. McELROY: Both of them like getting out there, traveling the country, meeting people. I think it lifts her up. I think it makes her - in terms of her physical health, I think she enjoys it.
Ms. ELIZABETH EDWARDS (John Edwards's Wife): I'm okay. Thank you very much. Thank you.
HOCHBERG: Despite the initial controversy, a Gallup Poll in late March showed most Americans supported the Edwardses' decision. And Elizabeth has remained a popular draw around the country. In New Hampshire this month, she was surrounded by well-wishers and people who've read her recently updated memoir.
Unidentified Woman: I wrote you two letters.
Ms. EDWARDS: Bless your heart.
Unidentified Woman: At your first diagnosis.
Ms. EDWARDS: Thank you so much.
Unidentified Woman: And I worked with cancer patients. That's been my career. So…
Ms. EDWARDS: Bless your heart. Well, it's for you, the "Saving Graces" I wrote the book about.
HOCHBERG: In some ways, as they appear at political events like this, the Edwardses are establishing a new precedent. Only a few times in history has a White House candidate's spouse has been diagnosed with cancer during the campaign and in the past it was handled differently, like in 1972 when Senator Birch Bayh dropped out of the race, or in 1968 when Governor George Wallace reacted to his wife's worsening health by trying to hide it.
But Elizabeth Edwards says times have changed. Candidates live more public lives now. Cancer doesn't have the stigma it once did and she believes the story of her illness helps voters appreciate her husband more.
Ms. EDWARDS: It's a pretty important indication of the kind of person he is, the kind of husband that most women would like to believe that they have, the kind of person who stands by you, provide strength for you. I think in a country that needs a lot of healing, that part of his personality is going to be incredibly important.
HOCHBERG: Mrs. Edwards says she is encouraged that fewer people nowadays ask about her health. She says that affirms that she doesn't look sick and it allows her to talk more about other issues she considers important like education and the environment. Still, her battle her cancer likely will remain in the limelight and no small part because it's ingrained into the message of her husband's campaign.
In one of his current TV commercials, the former senator talks about the day Elizabeth received her diagnosis. It was then, he says in the ad, that the couple decided they weren't going to quietly go away.
Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
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