Brenda Marquez McCool had survived one bout of cancer and was fighting leukemia when her battle was unexpectedly cut short in the mass shooting at Orlando gay club Pulse early Sunday morning.
“She was an awesome lady,” McCool’s niece, Nelia Rodriguez, tells PEOPLE. “She was an upbeat, great mother and she was a friend to her children.”
According to Rodriguez, the 49-year-old had 11 children, ranging in age from 9 to 24 years old.
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“She was a modern mom. She was very updated. She tried to talk like the kids would talk,” Rodriguez says. “She was a cool mom. She was really down-to-earth and open-minded.”
Rodriguez says that the “very happy and loving” McCool had gone to Pulse with her son Isaiah. She says that McCool and her son were ordering drinks at the bar when they heard gunshots ring out. McCool was shot in the back when she and Isaiah started running. When he tried to stop and help his mother, Rodriguez says she told him to, “Just run, go.”
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Before the tragedy, “they were having fun,” Rodriguez says. “They posted a video in the hours before the shooting – she was dancing. Anytime someone invited her somewhere she would just go and she would enjoy herself. She tried to keep herself from getting upset about what she was going through with her cancer.”
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McCool, who had recently reunited with her ex-husband and was planning on remarrying him after being divorced for two years, was undergoing treatment for leukemia.
“She had a cancer and they had to do a surgery on her back. She was battling cancer and that is why her hair is so short,” Rodriguez says. “She won one battle with cancer but ended up with another cancer and she was still in the process [of fighting it].”
Rodriguez continues: “She thought many times she would survive it. Her positive way is what kept her alive … She acted like there was nothing wrong with her. She was happy all the time. She tried not to talk about it.”
Rodriguez adds: “She just wanted to enjoy life even though she knew she was struggling to eventually pass away because of the sickness, but she didn’t let it bother her.”