Ever the public figure, Edwards thanked supporters on her Facebook page:
The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. 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.
A friend who was among those gathered with Edwards at her home told The Associated Press she is gravely ill.
The friend said Edwards was briefly hospitalized last week and received treatment, but doctors have now told her that she may have little time left. The friend spoke on condition of anonymity because of the personal details divulged.
Edwards' estranged husband of 30 years, former presidential candidate John Edwards, and their three children were at her side at the Chapel Hill home, the friend reported. In January, Elizabeth Edwards separated from John after he admitted fathering a child with a campaign videographer.
Her sister, brother, nieces, nephews, former campaign advisers and other friends were also with her. The friend said Elizabeth Edwards is not in pain and in good spirits despite the seriousness of her condition.
Elizabeth Edwards has seen her husband's presidential ambitions thwarted and her marriage disintegrate over his affair with Rielle Hunter. Still, she has pushed for changes in the country's health care system even as cancer has ravaged her body.
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 has 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 struggles she has, but without her personal wealth.
She has 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.
Darlene Gardner, 62, who runs a cancer support group and founded a store in Cary that provides wigs and other items for those with cancer, said Tuesday that it is miraculous how Elizabeth Edwards has handled the challenges and continued to live her life fully. She recommends Edwards' books to those who need encouragement.
"We can look at that face of courage and realize we can have that, too," Gardner said. "It shows you that, in spite of everything that's going on, you can come through anything."
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 remains 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."