Elizabeth Edwards, the estranged wife of former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, died of complications from breast cancer Tuesday morning surrounded by family and friends in her North Carolina home. She was 61.
(Scroll down to watch a video about Elizabeth Edwards' life)
"Elizabeth Anania Edwards, mother, author, advocate died today at her home in Chapel Hill, surrounded by her family," her family said in a statement. "Today we have lost the comfort of Elizabeth's presence but she remains the heart of this family. We love her and will never know anyone more inspiring or full of life."
"On behalf of Elizabeth we want to express our gratitude to the thousands of kindred spirits who moved and inspired her along the way," the statement continued. "Your support and prayers touched our entire family."
The family asked that donations be made to the Wade Edwards Foundation in lieu of flowers. Wade Edwards was Elizabeth Edwards' teenaged son who died in a car accident in 1996.
The important traits her admirers recalled Tuesday afternoon - passionate, inspirational, courageous - eclipsed all others and were on display for years, especially as her death drew closer, CBS News Correspondent Dean Reynolds reports.
In a statement, President Obama said of Edwards that the nation "benefited from the voice she gave to the cause of building a society that lifts up all those left behind."
"In her life, Elizabeth Edwards knew tragedy and pain," Mr. Obama said. "Many others would have turned inward; many others in the face of such adversity would have given up. But through all that she endured, Elizabeth revealed a kind of fortitude and grace that will long remain a source of inspiration. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends."
President Clinton also issued a statement praising Edwards.
"With the passing of Elizabeth Edwards, America has lost a symbol of strength, hope, and humanity, a tireless advocate for health care for all Americans, and determined crusader for cancer cures," Mr. Clinton said. "Her children have lost a loving mother, her friends a wise counselor. My prayers are with them. She was a remarkable woman who dealt with the challenges her life dealt her with courage and grace."
Edwards' family announced Monday that she had been advised by doctors that "further treatment of her cancer would be unproductive." The Edwards family, including John Edwards, had been gathered with her at the family home in Chapel Hill, N.C.
On Monday, Edwards reading in part, "The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that."
"You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces - my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope," Edwards wrote in the Facebook post. "These graces have carried me through difficult times and they have brought more joy to the good times than I ever could have imagined."
As political spouses go, Edwards broke the mold. A passionate advocate for health care reform and bestselling author, she was widely recognized as a major force in her husband's rise to political prominence.
She was a lawyer with a lengthy resume and raised four children: grown daughter Cate, Wade and Emma Claire, and Jack, who came later.
Lately though, she's been identified most with her private battles, first her health, and later her troubled marriage to John Edwards, who she met at the University of North Carolina Law School.
The former senator was John Kerry's running mate in the 2004 presidential election. The day they conceded defeat, Elizabeth announced she had been living with breast cancer during the campaign. After chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, the family hoped the worst was over.
In November 2006, she said, "I seem to be cancer free, knock on wood."
Yet soon after her husband launched his second presidential bid, doctors told her the cancer had returned, this time spreading to her bones, and could not be cured.
Elizabeth Edwards encouraged John Edwards to stay in the race despite her diagnosis, stating she was driven by the stories of Americans who lacked health insurance. Edwards often asked how someone without her wealth could possibly have dealt with a health crisis like the one she faced.
In 2008, John Edwards admitted publicly what he had already confessed in private: That he had had an affair with campaign videographer Rielle Hunter.
"She understands what I understand, which is that I am imperfect," he said of his wife. "I made a very serious mistake."
Later, Edwards would also admit fathering a child with Hunter. The Edwards' marriage imploded.
On Monday, she reached out to all those on Facebook who stood by her these turbulent few years.
She wrote, "It isn't possible to put into words the love and gratitude I feel to everyone who has and continues to support and inspire me every day...To you I simply say: you know. With love, Elizabeth."
"The unfortunate reality when you're talking about cancer, and cancer treatment, is that not all cancer is curable," CBS News Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton said Tuesday morning.
Betsy Gleick, executive editor of People magazine, which reported about Edwards' condition on its website Monday, said Edwards had been preparing her children for her death.
"She has been writing letters to them, she has been going through her things for years," he said. "And she has been writing these books. I mean, she's trying to be both a public example and a private example of the things that she mentions on her Facebook posting -- the sense of resilience and faith -- and that is how she is coping with this."
In her books, such as last year's "Resiliance," Edwards spoke candidly with her personal and health struggles.
"Either you push forward with the things that you were doing yesterday or you start dying," Edwards said in an interview promoting one of her books. "I'm actually hoping that's one of the things this discussion will fix, that people will see that you're not necessarily dying of cancer but that you can also live with cancer, and you can live full lives, concentrate on the things that matter to you. We're all going to die, and I pretty much know what I'm going to die of now, but I do want to live as full and normal a life as I can from this point on."
Immediately following the news that Edwards died, people began posting condolences on Twitter and elsewhere online.
"Prayers for the children, family & friends of Elizabeth Edwards," wrote Jody Schoger. "We were lucky to have the example of her grace, wisdom & intelligence."
Vice President Joe Biden also issued a statement.
"Elizabeth Edwards fought a brave battle against a terrible, ravaging disease that takes too many lives every day," he said. "She was an inspiration to all who knew her, and to those who felt they knew her. Jill and I extend our deepest sympathies to the Edwards family as they grieve during this difficult and painful time."
Kerry, who got to know Edwards during the 2004 presidential campaign, said in a statement that Edwards "was an incredibly loving, giving, and devoted mother."
"She became an inspiration to so many," he said. "Teresa and I, along with our family, send our prayers and deepest sympathies to Elizabeth's family and the children she loved so much."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who battled John Edwards for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, said in a statement that Elizabeth Edwards "made her mark on America, and she will not be forgotten."
"America has lost a passionate advocate for building a more humane and just society, for reforming our health care system, and for finding a cure for cancer once and for all," she said. "But the Edwards family and her legion of friends have lost so much more -- a loving mother, constant guardian, and wise counselor. Our thoughts are with the Edwards family at this time, and with all those people across the country who met Elizabeth over the years and found an instant friend -- someone who shared their experiences and offered empathy, understanding and hope."