Now, doctors have told the 61-year-old and her family that further treatment will do no good, and ever the public figure, Edwards thanked her supporters on her Facebook page Monday, perhaps weeks away from the disease taking her life.
"The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered," Edwards 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."
The Edwards family in a statement said doctors have told them that further treatment for her cancer would be unproductive. A friend, who was among those who gathered with Edwards at her North Carolina home, told The Associated Press that Edwards is gravely ill.
The friend said Edwards was briefly hospitalized last week and received treatment, but doctors have now told her that she may only have up to a couple months of life left. The friend spoke on condition of anonymity because of the personal details divulged.
Edwards' estranged husband, former presidential candidate John Edwards, and their three children were at her side at the Chapel Hill home, the friend reported. In January, Edwards separated from her husband of 30 years after he admitted to an extramarital affair and fathering a child with a campaign videographer.
Her sister, brother, nieces, nephews, former campaign advisers and other friends were also there. The friend said Elizabeth Edwards is not in pain and in good spirits despite the seriousness of her condition.
Edwards has focused on reforming the country's system of providing health care toward a single-payer process designed to serve all.
She has often wondered aloud about the plight of those who faced the same of kind of physical struggle, but without her personal wealth. Captivated by stories of those who could not afford health care coverage, Edwards has passionately retold them at roundtable discussions, in writings on the Web and on Capitol Hill.
"What I'm really glad about is that I still have a seat at the table to talk about health care â€" that I have the strength to do it and that I also have a seat at the table," Edwards said at event in October 2008.
Edwards has shared with the public the most intimate struggles of her bouts with cancer, writing and speaking about the pain of losing her hair, the efforts to assure her children about their mother's future and the questions that lingered about how many days she had left to live.
She continued that public face on Monday.
"It isn't possible to put into words the love and gratitude I feel towards everyone who has and continues to support and inspire me every day. To you I simply say: you know," Edwards, a popular figure among Democratic activists, wrote on the Facebook post.
Edwards has battled breast cancer since 2004, diagnosed in the final days of the campaign when her husband was the Democratic vice presidential nominee.
The John Kerry-John Edwards ticket lost to incumbent President George W. Bush. John Edwards launched a second bid for the White House in 2007. The Edwardses decided to continue the campaign after doctors told Elizabeth that her cancer had spread, but he lost the nomination to Barack Obama.
Edwards was more than a political spouse. She was chief adviser and strategist to her husband's campaigns for the Senate and later for the presidency.
The Edwardses met in law school. Daughter Cate has followed her parents into a career in law while son Wade was killed in a traffic accident when he was 16. Elizabeth Edwards had two more children later, giving birth to Emma Claire at age 48 and Jack at 50.
Elizabeth Edwards also allowed outsiders into her recovery from her son's death. She wrote in her 2006 memoir about breaking down in tears on the floor of a grocery store after seeing Wade's favorite soda - Cherry Coke - a few months after his death.