Face of Defense: Cancer Survivor Deploys to Afghanistan
By Army Staff Sgt. Tramel Garrett
18th Military Police Brigade
CAMP SABALU-HARRISON, Afghanistan, Jan. 7, 2014 On a warm summer day in July 2010, Army Sgt. Jessica Echols of the 18th Military Police Brigade decided to go for a run to relieve some stress. While running, she began to have problems breathing and experienced excruciating stomach pain.
Army Sgt. Jessica Echols in Bagram, Afghanistan, Jan. 5, 2014. Army photo by Sgt. Tramel Garrett
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
She recently had been assigned to Germany, and doctors believed her problems were due to her not being acclimatized. After a couple weeks off, she decided to try running again.
This would change her life forever.
Echols was awakened by a stranger after she collapsed on the side of the road. She received medical attention and numerous blood tests, which led to the removal her gallbladder in December 2010. After a successful surgery, it was time for a follow-up appointment at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. She believed her medical troubles were over, but as it turned out, they were just beginning. Tests revealed that she had massive tumors on her liver.
“For a moment, time stopped,” Echols said. “I could hear the clock ticking, and I couldn’t hear the doctor’s voice.” At first, she believed the doctor was mistaken.
But the reality hit, she said, and she immediately started crying when she realized she was just diagnosed with cancer. She learned that she had two tumors, one on the front and one on the back of her liver. The tumor in the front was attached to an artery, interfering with the blood flow to her heart.
Two weeks after the diagnosis, Echols was admitted to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the District of Columbia to be close to her family. She would have to prepare for life-threatening surgery. Six people had undergone the same procedure, she said, and only four survived.
“I just tried to spend as much time as possible with them,” she said. “They were all praying for the best and were great supporters.”
Echols said she thought about everything she wanted to accomplish in her life and in the military, and that she wanted to pull through the surgery not only for her family, but also for her fallen comrade, Army Sgt. Princess C. Samuels of Mitchellville, Md.
Echols, a human resource specialist, joined the Army Reserve in 2005 while attending college. She wanted to pursue an active duty career and joined Samuels, her best friend, at Fort Hood, Texas. The two were motivated to go as far as they could within the military ranks together, Echols said.
While waiting to deploy to Iraq, the two friends made a pact to continue their military service until retirement. But Samuels was killed in action Aug. 15, 2007.
At her friend’s funeral, Echols said, she promised her fallen comrade she would continue her military service and a make positive impact.
“I told her that I loved her and that I would continue to live life to the fullest for the both of us,” she said.
“It just added to the fact that I knew I needed to fight and that I still had other things in life that I wanted to do,” she added, “so giving up was not a choice.”
Echols needed four months to recover before returning to Germany. “I couldn’t sit up for a month,” she said. “I could only eat ice chips and Jell-O, but I was happy to be alive.”
She slowly began physical training with walking and swimming. One day the pain in her stomach returned, and she feared the worst. In February 2012, another abnormal growth was discovered on her liver. Fortunately, this was a noncancerous tumor, and it was removed at Landstuhl.
“I was so thankful the tumor was benign. I do not want to go through that surgery again,” she said. “Going through chemotherapy was one of the biggest challenges of my life.”
Echols said she fought a long battle to be cleared for a deployment, determined to serve beside the fellow soldiers who were so supportive during her crisis.
“I’m happy I was able to recover for all the surgeries,” she said. “I feel I’ve showed myself that I’m a determined person. I have so much more that I want to do in the Army. I had two doctor appointments a week until I was cleared to deploy with my unit. My leaders here support me, and I wanted to give back to them, as well as my country.”
Now, Echols is cancer free and is deployed to Bagram, Afghanistan, with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 18th Military Police Brigade.
“My service to my country means the world me,” she said. “I wanted to share my story and show people that you can overcome any obstacle. Cancer is very scary, but you should never give up, even if the odds are against you.”