Elizabeth Edwards Dies at 61

Elizabeth Edwards, who won national celebrity for her stoic dignity in the face of terminal cancer and the public unraveling of her storybook marriage to one of America's most prominent politicians, died on Tuesday in Chapel Hill, N.C. She was 61.

"Today we have lost the comfort of Elizabeth's presence but she remains the heart of this family," said a statement released on behalf of the Edwards family. "We love her and will never know anyone more inspiring or full of life."

A tireless advocate--first for her husband, former senator and Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, and then for cancer research and social causes--Edwards succumbed after a six-year battle with breast cancer. She died at home, surrounded by family--including her estranged husband. She had returned from the hospital earlier this week after doctors told her that continuing treatment would be unproductive.

"The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that," Edwards wrote in a December 7 Facebook post announcing her decision to end cancer treatment. "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."

Her relationship with her husband, which defined Elizabeth Edwards's life, exploded onto the pages of the tabloids when reports surfaced of the former Democratic presidential candidate's "love child" with former campaign videographer Rielle Hunter. John Edwards belatedly admitted paternity after an awkward attempt to cover up his misdeeds.  Elizabeth Edwards separated from her husband last year. "John's conduct through this whole thing was terrible," she told People magazine last year.

Edwards was born on July 3, 1949, to Elizabeth and Vincent Anania. Her father was a Navy pilot, so her family moved frequently during her childhood. She eventually landed at the University of North Carolina, where she earned both bachelor's and law degrees.

It was during her time at UNC's Law School that she met her husband. They married in 1977, right after she graduated from law school. Edwards went on to clerk for a U.S. District Court judge to work for the North Carolina state attorney general's office while her husband became a prominent--and very successful--trial lawyer.

The couple's charmed lives took a sharp turn in 1996, when their eldest son, Wade, died in an auto accident at age 16. The following year, John Edwards abandoned his lucrative law career to launch a Senate bid. He spent more than $3 million of his own money to win the 1998 campaign. He gave up the seat  six years later to run for president, an effort in which his wife figured prominently.

Sen. Edwards's populist campaign fell short, but the Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., tapped him as his vice presidential running mate.

Just days after the Democratic duo lost the 2004 presidential election, Elizabeth Edwards was diagnosed with breast cancer. She immediately underwent treatment, and the cancer went into remission, only to return during her husband's run for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. In a press conference in March 2007, the couple announced that Elizabeth was ill again but that the presidential campaign would go on.

Edwards went on to make fighting cancer and reforming the health care system the causes of her life. She wrote of her experience in battling the disease and in dealing with the death of her son in "Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength From Friends and Strangers," which was released in 2006.  That book and her second--the 2009 "Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life's Adventures"--went on to top The New York Times best-seller list.

One of her husband's most trusted advisers before the couple's breakup, Elizabeth Edwards embraced the use of social media in campaigns early on, and frequently updated her Facebook page, often with news about her cancer treatment. It was on Facebook that Edwards announced the news that her illness had entered its final stages.

In addition to her estranged husband, Edwards is survived by her daughters, Emma Claire and Catherine, and her son, Jack. The family is requesting that memorial donations be made to the Wade Edwards Foundation, an education philanthropy named after Edwards' late son.

Marc Ambinder contributed to this report.