Story Highlights• Elizabeth Edwards' cancer a lifetime chronic condition that must be managed
• Elizabeth and John Edwards: "We're incredibly optimistic"
• Doctor: It's Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, life expectancy "very variable"
• Treatment undecided; Edwards was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004
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(CNN) -- Elizabeth and John Edwards on Thursday described her cancer recurrence as a chronic condition that she'll have the rest of her life.
How long that will be, her doctor said, is unknowable.
"We're incredibly optimistic," Elizabeth Edwards said at a news conference in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. "I don't expect my life to be significantly different." (Full story)
The breast cancer, which has spread, is "no longer curable but completely treatable," said Sen. John Edwards, a North Carolina Demeocrat. He added that doctors had likened the situation to living with diabetes, which can be managed but is a lifelong condition.
The cancer's return was discovered early this week after Edwards visited her doctor complaining of a pain in her side. She attributed the soreness to previous back strain and a hug from her husband, and X-rays revealed a rib fracture on her left side.
But there was also a suspicious spot on her right rib.
Days after the 2004 election, in which her husband ran for vice president, Elizabeth Edwards was found to have invasive ductal carcinoma, the most common type of breast cancer. She underwent chemotherapy, radiation and a lumpectomy and believed she was cancer free.
On Thursday, her doctor, Lisa Carey of the University of North Carolina Medical Center, described Edwards' condition as Stage IV metastatic breast cancer, meaning the cancer has spread beyond her breast and lymph nodes. In addition to the spot on her rib, there may be other areas of cancer, the doctor said. She specifically mentioned "very small" abnormalities in the lung that are "too small to say what's going on there." (Metastatic breast cancer Q&A )
The doctor said Elizabeth Edwards' treatment hadn't been determined, pending more test results. It could include hormone therapy or chemotherapy. Stage IV breast cancer is considered a systemic disease, meaning it is no longer contained in one area but is throughout the body. Surgery isn't usually considered effective because it will remove cancer cells only from one area, but the cancer is more likely located in other places.
Reliable survival rates for breast cancer that has spread aren't available. Five years after a first diagnosis of breast cancer, 88 percent of women are still alive.
Elizabeth Edwards noted life after a cancer diagnosis means being on constant guard. "This is what happens to every cancer survivor" she said. "Every time you get something suspicious you go into alarm mode," fearing that pains and aches could be something serious.
Addressing a question about Elizabeth Edwards' life expectancy, Carey said, "It's a very variable thing. Many patients with exactly this circumstance do very well for a number of years."
CNN's Mary Carter, Elizabeth Cohen and Amy Burkholder contributed to this story.