From Our 2007 Archives

Elizabeth Edwards' Breast Cancer Back

Tests Reveal Cancer Has Spread to the Bone

By Todd Zwillich
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 22, 2007 -- Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of presidential candidate John Edwards, announced Thursday that her breast cancer, originally diagnosed in 2004, has returned.

At a news conference in Chapel Hill, N.C., Elizabeth Edwards, who is 57, told reporters that doctors had discovered cancer on a rib on her right side.

The news prompted speculation that her husband might suspend or call off his run for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. But John Edwards said doctors informed the couple that there was no medical reason to suspend the campaign and that it would continue.

"The campaign goes on. The campaign goes on strongly," he said.

Cancer that spreads to bone is generally incurable. Still, patients can live for years if the cancers are controlled, according to experts.

Elizabeth Edwards was diagnosed with breast cancer on the last day of her husband's unsuccessful vice presidential bid on a ticket with Sen. John Kerry in 2004.

A cracked rib sustained while moving furniture last week prompted Elizabeth Edwards to go to a doctor. An X-ray of the rib, on her left side, also revealed a spot on a different rib on her right side. That spot was eventually diagnosed as malignant.

Elizabeth Edwards said she would begin a new round of cancer treatment but that doctors had told her the treatment would not force her to quit campaigning. "Honestly, there is no medical reason why we should," she said.

Cancer Primarily in Bone

Lisa Carey, MD, Elizabeth Edwards' physician, says additional, smaller spots of malignancy had been spotted in her body. Results from further tests will largely guide treatment decisions -- and are due back in several days.

"Her cancer looks like it's primarily in the bone. There may be some other sites, but they're very small and not as clear," Carey says.

Prognosis varies widely for patients like Elizabeth Edwards, says Aman Buzdar, MD, the deputy chair of breast medical oncology at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

"It is not as grave as it used to be," Buzdar says of cases like that of Elizabeth Edwards. "If anything it carries a somewhat more favorable prognosis" than other forms of cancer, he says.

Buzdar says treatment will depend on the extent of cancer spread.

If the cancer is confined to a single site, radiation therapy could be used. If there are spots of cancer in other places -- as appears to be the case with Elizabeth Edwards -- oral or IV chemotherapy, or hormone treatments, could be used.

The treatment could interrupt a busy campaign schedule, though it doesn't have to.

"They still can function very closely to normal lives, even though the patient is on treatment," Buzdar tells WebMD.

SOURCES: Elizabeth Edwards. John Edwards. Lisa Carey, MD, Chapel Hill, N.C. Aman Buzdar, MD, deputy chair of breast medical oncology, University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Houston. Len Lichtenfeld, MD, deputy chief medical officer, American Cancer Society.

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