Elizabeth Edwards Dies of Cancer at 61

Elizabeth Edwards, estranged wife of former presidential candidate John Edwards and a fierce advocate for health care reform, died at age 61 Tuesday after a long battle with breast cancer, NBC News has learned.

Elizabeth Edwards
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Elizabeth Edwards

Earlier Tuesday, the Edwards family released a statement stating that doctors told the family further treatment for Edward's incurable breast cancer would be unproductive. A friend who was among those gathered with Edwards at her North Carolina home told The Associated Press she was gravely ill.

She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, in the final days of her husband's vice presidential campaign. The Democratic John Kerry-John Edwards ticket lost to incumbent President George W. Bush.

John Edwards launched a second bid for the White House in 2007, and the Edwardses decided to continue even after doctors told Elizabeth that her cancer had spread. He lost the nomination to Barack Obama.

Elizabeth Edwards had focused in recent years on advocating health care reform, often wondering aloud about the plight of those who faced the same of kind of physical struggled she has, but without her personal wealth.

She had also 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.

During her husband's career, Elizabeth Edwards was more than a political spouse. She was chief adviser and strategist to his bids for the Senate and later for the presidency.

The couple 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 when she was 48 and Jack when she was 50.

She remained a popular figure among Democratic activists.

"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," she wrote on Facebook on Monday. "To you I simply say: you know."