TRUSSVILLE, Ala. (AP) — After she got the news, Laurie Echols stood in the parking lot of St. Vincent’s East and screamed.
A two centimeter tumor in her right breast was cancerous.
The 35-year-old mother of two was about to start 18 rounds of chemotherapy and, although now in remission, she will undergo a double mastectomy in January because she carries a gene that places her in a higher risk group.
Just 10 weeks earlier, at about 2:30 a.m. April 23, Brad Echols, her husband of 10 years and the father of her children, died of an aggressive form of cancer doctors diagnosed four months earlier. He was 36.
“I put myself back in April,” Echols said. “I thought my kids aren’t going to have a mother or father by the end of the year. I was mad, because I was going to be putting my grief aside to fight for my life.”
It’s an ordeal that began last fall, when Brad — who she began dating at age 15 when they were students at Hewitt-Trussville High School — went to the emergency room thinking he had appendicitis.
“They found a mass in his abdomen. They didn’t think it was cancer. They thought it was a cyst,” Laurie Echols said. “It was an anomaly.”
On Oct. 4, 2012, the mass was surgically removed and tested. On Dec. 21, doctors told the couple it was cancer of the small intestine and had spread to Brad’s liver. The day after Christmas, Brad began chemotherapy, receiving treatment at UAB and Vanderbilt University.
“Nothing worked. His cancer was super rare and super aggressive,” Laurie Echols said. “Four months later, he was gone.”
That Christmas, the couple who “broke up a million times” in high school and college, married in 2003, and together raised their 8-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son, knew they were in the fight of their lives and had to cherish every moment together.
“The best case scenario is they hit it hard and shrink the tumor. We knew it was bad and we just started praying for a miracle, us and everybody else in Trussville,” she said.
On April 18, doctors told the couple the cancer had spread and there was nothing left to be done. They gave Brad six weeks to live.
Less than a week later, friends and family came to the house. Brad was still able to get around and talk with his loved ones.
“All I could do was pray for a miracle or for mercy. I couldn’t take watching him in pain,” she said.
That next morning, Brad died. That same day, Laurie’s brother’s wife gave birth to a baby boy.
“We got all our miracles wrapped up at the same time. It was worlds coming together,” she said.
‘The strongest person I have ever met’
As they had throughout the four month battle, the Echols’ friends and family and fellow members of Trussville First United Methodist Church wrapped their arms around the family. The entire city did as well.
At the funeral, a line of nearly 1,000 people wrapped around the church visiting with Laurie for five hours, said Tandi Glenn Smith, a member of Laurie’s Sunday School class.
“She is the strongest person I have ever met,” Smith said. “She has to be for her kids. She doesn’t have a choice.”
Pastor Mark Lacey agreed.
“Her faith has grown by leaps and bounds,” Lacey said. “She’s still able to laugh. That’s huge for her. And she’s such an inspiration to others.”
Having lost the man with whom she shared more than half her life, Laurie struggled.
“After Brad died, I wanted to curl up with him and go,” she said.
Two months later, after seeing a Facebook post urging women to self-check their breasts for lumps, she would feel a mass that would force her to snap out of grief and fight for her life.
“I blew it off for a couple of weeks. I thought, I’m being a hypochondriac. My husband just died of cancer. There’s no way this is happening,” she said. Because of her age — 35 — she had never had a mammogram.
“My brain kept saying, ‘Call the doctor. Just make sure.'”
On June 28, she went for an exam. They found what they said might be a cyst and, that same day, she had a mammogram and ultrasound.
“The radiologist said, ‘If you were my wife or mother, I’d want you to have a biopsy,'” she recalled.
Thinking she was over-reacting, Laurie had gone alone, except for her son who was playing on an iPad, as the same surgeons who operated on her husband performed the biopsy.
On July 3, having told her family, she received the news she had a fast-growing cancerous tumor the size of a grape that typically responds well to chemotherapy.
“The doctor’s exact words were, ‘God doesn’t give us more than we can handle,'” Echols said. “He said you’re going to be fine. We caught it early. He’s more worried about my mental state.”
But, it meant telling her children for the second time in six months that one of their parents had cancer.
“We’ve always been completely honest with them,” she said. “We prepared them as well as you could that their dad was dying. They’re resilient. They talk about Dad all the time. (Her son) talks about what he’s doing in Heaven, if he’s playing golf or making God laugh.”
Before breaking the news of her diagnosis, she contacted the Amelia Center, which helps families cope with grief.
“How do you tell your kids you have cancer when their dad died of cancer 10 weeks ago? That’s been the hardest part of the journey. (Her son) raised his hand and asked, ‘Are you going to die?”
She said although everyone dies, her prognosis was good.
“He said thank goodness. That was all he needed to know.”
They also wanted to know, however, if she was going to go bald. After the first 13 rounds of chemo, she hasn’t.
“Hair 13, chemo 0.”
Her battle against her cancer has, for the second time in less than a year, brought an entire city rallying to her family’s side.
“After the diagnosis, I said ‘OK, God. I do want to live,” she said. “It snapped me back to life.”
And through it all, Trussville, her hometown, has been there for her.
A Race For the Cure team started in her honor — Jogging For Jugs — raised $11,000 for cancer research. A dinner at her church another $2,000.
“We’ve had it twice. The whole community has done so much for us, meals, prayers. I only have to pick up the phone. My grass keeps getting cut. I don’t know who does it,” she said.
“Trussville was always a small town. It’s grown so much, but it still has a small town feel. When something happens to someone, everyone comes out to help,” she said. “The love everyone has shown us has been amazing.”
Echols spent 12 consecutive Thursdays receiving chemo treatments at Brookwood. She’s now going only every other Thursday until she completes 18 rounds.
She was home this Thursday afternoon as her kids, students at Paine Primary, got off the bus. Her mother, Lynda Payne, was also waiting there.
“Brad was such a special person,” Payne said. “If these two grow up to be strong as Brad and Laurie, oh my gosh.”
“They really lived their vows.”