Published: Dec 08, 2010 3:28 PM EST
Updated: Dec 08, 2010 12:29 PM EST

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) - A son dying young. A six-year battle with cancer. A humiliating betrayal.

Americans knew Elizabeth Edwards in large part through her tragedies, but more importantly, they knew her for the vitality and determination she showed through them. Her cancer incurable and her former-presidential-candidate husband mired in a paternity scandal, she did not shrink from public life but shared her story and advocated for health-care reform.

"We can look at that face of courage and realize we can have that, too," said Darlene Gardner, 62, who runs a cancer support group and founded a store in Cary that provides wigs and other items for those with the disease. "It shows you that, in spite of everything that's going on, you can come through anything."

Edwards died of cancer Tuesday at her North Carolina home surrounded by her three children, siblings, friends and her estranged husband, John. She was 61.

Elizabeth Edwards and her family had informed the public that she had weeks, if not days, left when they announced on Monday that doctors had told her that further treatment would do no good. Ever the public figure, Edwards thanked supporters on her Facebook page.

"The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered," she wrote. "We know that. And yes, there are certainly times when we aren't able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It's called being human. But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful."

Her final days were in the company of her surviving children and their father.

"He loved Elizabeth," David "Mudcat" Saunders, a political adviser and friend of the family, said of John Edwards. "You climb that many mountains and you go through the deepest valley that two people can possibly go through together - the loss of a child - and that makes for an incredible bond."

Saunders relayed a scene from Monday, told to him by John Edwards, when their youngest child, 10-year-old Jack, came in the room to tell his mother he loved her. She smiled at him and said, "I love you, too, sweetie," Saunders said.

Edwards shared her life struggles in memoirs. In a series of book events starting in 2006, her insights brought women who confided in Edwards about how they dealt with hair loss from treatments or how her words helped them cope with lost children.

In her book "Saving Graces," Edwards talked about collapsing in the aisle of a grocery store after seeing her son's favorite soda - Cherry Coke- a few months after he died in a car accident at the age of 16. Later, she wrote about how physically grueling the cancer treatments were. This year, she detailed in a new chapter to her second memoir how difficult it was to leave her husband of 30 years after his infidelity.

"In her life, Elizabeth Edwards knew tragedy and pain," President Barack Obama said in a statement. "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."

On Facebook, an Elizabeth Edwards fan page was inundated with several posts a minute after her death was announced. Many of those offering condolences mentioned their own experiences with cancer, or those of their relatives.

"People identified with her and saw how courageous she was under extemely difficult circumstances," said Barbara Chassin, a 62-year-old cancer survivor from Phoenix, in an interview. "Also, she was fairly realistic about her prognosis, and that's a good thing."

Dr. Linda Vahdat, an oncologist and director of the Breast Cancer Research Program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City, said Edwards' public discussions about her diagnosis, illness and treatment have helped raise awareness. She said her breast cancer patients were talking about Edwards on Tuesday.

"They're sad," Vahdat said. "People have always been rooting for her."

The Edwardses' son Wade died before John Edwards turned to politics. Two of their three children, Emma Claire and Jack, were born after his death, joining daughter Cate.

Elizabeth Edwards advised her husband during his successful 1998 Senate campaign in North Carolina and his presidential runs in 2004 and 2008. Doctors found a lump on her breast in 2004, in the final days of her husband's vice presidential campaign, and she was later diagnosed. The Democratic John Kerry-John Edwards ticket lost to incumbent President George W. Bush.

After treatments, doctors found her to be cancer-free, but in early 2007, shortly after John Edwards launched a second bid for the White House, the couple learned that her cancer had returned in an incurable form.

"We are not in denial," Edwards wrote in an updated version of her first memoir published in 2007. "I will die much sooner than I want to. I will leave a splendid man and an amazing daughter with yet another funeral to attend when they place me in the ground next to Wade and I will not be able to comfort them. And I will leave two magical children whom I love with all my being too early."

Her husband added to her suffering with an affair with videographer Rielle Hunter that he publicly acknowledged in 2008. Instead of playing a role in the final weeks of the presidential race, which Edwards had quit after poor primary showings, he and Elizabeth retreated almost entirely from public life.

Hunter had a baby that John Edwards insisted was not his until January 2010, when he acknowledged he had fathered the child. A week later, friends revealed that he and Elizabeth had separated.

While Elizabeth Edwards pleaded for privacy, she also wrote a memoir - her second - that discussed how the affair repulsed her. She went on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to talk about it, but only on the condition that Winfrey not mention Hunter's name.

Edwards said in interviews that it didn't matter whether her husband had fathered a child with Hunter, saying, "that would be part of John's life." Still, she stood by him.

"Nothing will be quite as I want it, but sometimes we eat the toast that is burned on one side anyway, don't we?" she wrote in the memoir, "Resilience."

With no campaign to focus on, Elizabeth Edwards returned to advocacy work, appearing on her own and often without any mention of her husband to push for universal health care. She often wondered aloud about the plight of those who faced the same of kind of physical struggles she did but without her personal wealth.

"Even at the end of her life to reassure people that she still felt that living a life that was filled with hope and really believing in resilience gave meaning to her life," Jennifer Palmieri, a family friend and national press secretary for John Edwards' 2004 presidential campaign, said Wednesday on CBS' "The Early Show."

Glenn Bergenfield, a classmate of both Elizabeth and John Edwards at the University of North Carolina Law School, told CBS Elizabeth Edwards' legacy would be one of grace and patience in the face of adversity.

"Elizabeth was unafraid of anything that I ever saw," Bergenfield said. "She's faced into the most horrendous thing that we can all think about, the loss of a child, and she's done it with grace."

Ellen Schoenfeld, a breast cancer survivor in New York, said Edwards "faced her illness with a ton of strength and a lot of hope and faith. She took it on with such grace and dignity."

Schoenfeld said Edward gave other people with cancer "the motivation to live their lives the way they want to live them," she said. "People might think you need to change the way you live when you get a diagnosis like that, but she wanted to maintain a sense of normalcy, for her kids and for herself, too. I think she just wanted to live as normal a life as possible."

--- Noveck reported from New York.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)