updated 12/08/2010 AT 2:05 PM ET
•originally published 12/08/2010 AT 8:05 AM ET
Two months ago, Elizabeth Edwards was laboring to climb the stairs of the old colonial house she had recently bought in Chapel Hill, N.C., for herself and her youngest two children. Separated from husband John since January, she looked forward to making a fresh start come springtime in this new home.
But even as she daydreamed on this sunny October day, Edwards, 61, gasped for breath with tears in her eyes and cursed her chemo.
“Damn these drugs,” she cried. “Damn cancer.”
Elizabeth Edwards would never move into that house. Instead, just days after learning that the breast cancer she had been fighting off-and-on since 2004 had spread to her liver, and that treatment was no longer productive, she died in the home she built with John.
“She’s at peace,” said a close friend who saw her the day she died, surrounded by friends and family, including her children and estranged husband. “After so much pain the past several years, it was an easy passing, and she deserved that.”
For more on the triumphs and heartbreaks of Elizabeth Edwards’s life, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday