Elizabeth Edwards, breast cancer and the battle for a cure

News of Elizabeth Edwards' death quickly went viral
At the Board, supervisors learned about it online, and the rest of us quickly followed suit

When the news hit that Elizabeth Edwards had died at 61, I was sitting in the press box at San Francisco City Hall listening to the supervisors debate the merits of local hire legislation. In fact, I only became aware that Edwards had passed away, because Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier, who was sitting in front of me, was surfing the Internet on her laptop and I happened to see the headline.

The news immediately reminded me, all too powerfully, of the brave fight that my sister-in-law Leila, 47, lost last year after a six-year battle with the disease. She left behind a husband and two young sons, and I always feel a mix of pride at how hard she fought and desperation at how she still wasn't able to win, whenever I remember her long slide towards death last fall.

“I have so much to live for,” Leila often told me, reflecting on how much she loved her husband and sons, how she wanted to finish her novel (which she managed to wrap up in the last months of her life) and how she still wanted to visit so many places and people in the world.

An avid advocate for peace, especially in the Middle East, where her father’s family came from, Leila was not one to give up on a cause, once she had it in her crosshairs. She attacked breast cancer with that same dogged determination. She read everything she could on the topic, changing her diet, modifying her lifestyle, going through chemo and the inevitable loss of her beautiful hair, and, at the end, taking a chance with experimental drugs.

I will never forget her telling me, one gut-wrenching afternoon last September, that the doctors had told her there was nothing more they could do. The disease had gone to her liver, and that she was beginning to feel panic and fear. It wasn't easy to hear that admission, it must have been even harder for her to share it, and it left me hoping that one day, no other woman would ever have to go through this painful battle again.

I wanted Leila to live to see her sons grow up, to enjoy the company of her husband, to write, travel and work for her goal of world peace. But eventually, it became clear that she was not going to make it. When her death finally came, last October, I felt relief that she was no longer suffering, even as I shed tears for her, her family, and all the folks in the world who are going through similar battles.

So, when I got home last night, I immediately went online and wallowed in the huge wave of grief that Edwards' death evoked as a symbol of the millions of women who live with and die from cancer worldwide.

Some noted that Edwards had not been conducting regular check ups when she found a lump in her breast (an uncomfortable reminder to all of us who haven't got a check up recently). Others observed that her diagnosis likely fueled her passion for universal health care and helped the passage of Obamacare (a more welcome reminder that despite all the criticisms of Obama, he has pushed through monumental reforms that many will benefit from).

Some wrote about the ever-present fear for survivors that the cancer could come back, and how this awareness had  served to make them more fully appreciate every moment that they do have. Others pointed to the grim reality that even with access to great doctors, advanced treatment options and money, Edwards still could not prevail, because a cure has still not been found.

I’ll end this tribute to Edwards, my sister-in-law, and all the women who have struggled with this terrible disease with a message that landed in my inbox Dec. 7 from California’s First Lady Maria Shriver:

"I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of my dear friend, Elizabeth Edwards,” Shriver wrote. “My heart goes out to her loving family. Elizabeth was a mighty warrior, and I've long admired her courage, her compassion and her personal quest for truth. She was a public servant, a dedicated mother, a tireless advocate and a loyal friend. She showed up to speak at The Women's Conference every time I asked, and our audience was always moved by the open and honest way she would share the struggles she faced along her journey. I hope her children know their mother was an inspiration to women everywhere -- a truly great woman."

And I'll add my hope that this nation will intensify its search for a cure for a disease that is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in women today (after lung cancer) and the most common cancer among women, excluding nonmelanoma skin cancers. According to the American Cancer Society, 1.3 million women will be diagnosed with breast cancer annually worldwide, 465,000 will die from the disease, and about 1 in 35 women die from breast cancer in the U.S. Scary? Yes. Curable? Hell, yeah (I hope and pray). Let's just make sure it remains a national priority.