Under Her Skin: Meet Lisa Echols

Monday, July 07, 2014

Lisa Echols. (Christopher Blank/WKNO)

Over the past 30 years, researchers have found a widening survival divide between black and white women diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States. The Takeaway’s series “Under Her Skin: Living With Breast Cancer” shares the stories of three African-American women coping with the disease.

Over the course of six months, we’ll hear their thoughts and fears, their struggles and triumphs, as their audio diaries capture the realities of a disease that will afflict more than 12 percent of American women at some point in their lives.

We begin with Lisa Echols, who lives and works in Memphis, Tennessee, a city where the mortality rate for black women with breast cancer is twice that of white women.

But if you saw the 46-year-old mother of two on the streets of Memphis, you might never notice the weight of cancer that she carries.

“You would notice my smile and notice that I speak to everybody," says Echols. "Even at home I'm right there in the kitchen to either pour you a cup of coffee or ask you do you want a second cup, and if you saw me even to this day you would not look at me and that matter, at all."

But on the inside, under her skin, things aren't as rosy. After being diagnosed with breast cancer on December 9, 2013,  Lisa faced an onslaught of diagnoses and statistics.

“You're tumor is the size of a quarter," says Echols, recalling her doctors words. "I'm thinking you're between stage one and stage two. We can remove the tumor or we can remove the whole breast."

Lisa struggled to understand her diagnosis at first. "I was shocked... devastated because I knew that in the back of my mind I was doing all of the right stuff as far as eating right, a lot vegetables, a lot of fruit. So, like I said, it was hard for me because at that point I wanted to know: what did I do wrong? [...] After settling down I realized that it wasn't for me to figure out."

The Takeaway sat down with Lisa just before her decision to go ahead with that final option to remove her breast became a reality. Lisa spoke to us from her home in Memphis a little over a week before her bilateral mastectomy, the surgery that would remove both of her breasts in an effort to eradicate the cancer and to prevent it from coming back.

"We all go through tests in life, and this is my test," says Lisa. "At the end of passing my test, I will have a story to tell somebody."

Lisa's story is one we will be following for the next six months. To get involved in the conversation join our group on Facebook, Under Her Skin.


Lisa Echols

Produced by:

Ellen Frankman and Jillian Weinberger


Megan Quellhorst

Comments [4]

Lauren Ayers from Sonoma

There is still time for John and the team to look into a little-known explanation for the survival gaps between women of various complexions, from low to high melanin.

Start with two facts:
1. Melanin is a natural sun block
2. Unlike people in the tropics, those living north of LA or Atlanta make vitamin D from UVB rays in sunlight hitting their skin ONLY from March to October, and even then only in the 2-3 hours when the sun is highest.

This means that vitamin D deficiency is worst for African Americans, bad for in Latino Americans, while pale Americans show the lowest rate of deficiency.

Tom Weishaar co-authored a recent study which shows how skin color affects vitamin D levels, which in turn affects health. “Treating groups at risk for insufficient vitamin D— including all people of color living in the United States— with inexpensive vitamin D supplements may be a viable strategy for reducing health disparities and lowering the cost of health care.”

The study also points out, “Healthy People 2020 [a federal government 10-year program] has over 1,200 goals related to public health, including goals related to reducing sun exposure, but does not mention vitamin D anywhere in the document.”


Jul. 10 2014 04:35 PM
Karen from Vancouver WA


Please cover the effect of black hair and skin care products! Studies show they contain chemicals that mess up hormones!

Google it! People don't realize that chemicals they put on their skin and scalp are absorbed unfiltered and wreak havoc!!

The question is why are black products made with so much more?


Jul. 07 2014 12:37 PM

Hi Mark --

I am one of the producers at The Takeaway. Thanks so much for sharing your wife's story. If you'd like, we would love to have you both join our Facebook group, where we are hoping to create a space for conversations like this one to take place. https://www.facebook.com/groups/underherskin/14... Best of luck to both of you, and thanks again for writing.

Jul. 07 2014 10:28 AM
Mark Donaldson from coral springs

In 2010 my best friend, living in South FL where we are from was diagnosed with breast cancer and I was laid off my job in Philadelphia (A huge blessing in disguise). Her boyfriend at the time left her, after she spent may years taking care of him. I moved back to south FL and our friendship grew and blossomed over events that would take too long to describe. We fell further in love (we always loved each other since college, but as friends) and now she's my wife. When we were going through the chemo and other treatment, she had an unnatural obliviousness about her condition. We went to a support group, ONCE, but she said it was too depressing. Even though we both have been going through our struggle, it has been my honor to go through this with her. She doesn't even like me talking about it because she doesn't want people to feel sorry for her, but I'm trying to get her to talk about it more because I don't believe she realizes how strong she is. My FAVORITE aunt died of breast cancer 11 years ago and I remember when she called me crying, telling me the diagnosis. She told me the type she had, and at her age, 32, it was very aggressive. I remember telling her not to worry. We know what it is and we'll beat it, even though I had a hard time believing it myself. We are Jamaican, but America just sees us as black, so we fall into that statistic you mentioned of be 44% more likely to die than white women. Thank you for doing this story. My eyes are watering as I recount briefly what we went through. She is doing great now and are in discussion about starting a family, which is complicated, because of the drugs she has to take. We have to weight the consequences of her being pregnant and the hormonal changes that may make the cancer reappear, seeing as she would not be able to take her medication during the 10 month process. I need more reassurances if we were to go in that direction, but I'm not willing to gamble on her life for a dream I had of a family when I was younger. We're looking at adoption or even a surrogate, but again that's another discussion in itself. Before I go further off topic, I would love for my wife to she her story with you. All we do is listen NPR and hearing the story today made her realize how important it is to tell that story. Once again, thank you

Jul. 07 2014 10:20 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.