As the owner of Atlanta’s Bridals By Lori, Lori Allen — the sunny, spunky and beloved star of TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta and Say Yes to the Dress: Bridesmaids — has helped many brides whose lives and families have been affected by breast cancer. On April 13 of this year, Allen, 53, learned she, too, would battle the disease.
“I got the phone call at 7:05am and it felt like somebody had hit me on the side of the head,” Allen recalls of the early-stage cancer caught by a routine 3D mammogram and follow-up MRI. “For days, I couldn’t tell anybody. I told my immediate family, but I couldn’t even get the words out of my mouth, that I had breast cancer. I couldn’t verbalize it. I just couldn’t speak the words.”
Once the news settled in, Allen realized that she had a unique platform to share a story common to the more than 200,000 women a year who will be diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I feel like we’re not as open about it as we should be,” she explains. “I’m not ashamed that I have breast cancer! If we can turn something negative into something positive as a group of women, what better gift is there than that?”
Allen decided to turn her own journey into the Oct. 26 special Say Yes to the Cure: Lori’s Fight that chronicles the twists and turns in Allen’s treatment and recovery, which began with a double lumpectomy. “I was going to have six weeks of radiation and then be on the anti-cancer pills for a long time after that,” Allen says. “That was the plan. I thought, ‘I’m going to get this over with and it’s going to be fine.’ And you’ll see in the show that it doesn’t work that way. Cancer doesn’t work that way. Everybody’s path is different, and that’s something we talk about.”
Allen also welcomed the ability to let her family and friends give voice to their own experience with her illness. “My children are in the special. My husband is in the special. My parents are in the special. And the people that I work with,” she says. “The reason that we did that is because they’re all affected by my cancer.”
Few more so than Allen’s pal, coworker and viewer-favorite costar Monte Durham.
“We’re best friends, and he really had a hard time articulating to me how heartbroken he was,” Allen says. “So what he started doing was every day he sent me a different card. Every day! Some days they’d say, ‘Get your ass back to work!’ and the next day, it would say, ‘I love you with all my heart.’ But it was always how he was feeling — he would write it in those cards!”
Allen generously took time out of her busy schedule to talk about her diagnosis, her decision to do the special … and why you’ll never catch this steel magnolia saying that cancer is the best thing that ever happened to her!
Channel Guide Magazine: First of all, how are you doing?
Lori Allen: I’m doing good! I’m 12 weeks out now and getting stronger every day! I’m doing very well.
CGM: I’m a breast cancer survivor, too — there’s nothing quite as shocking as having to apply the word “cancer” to yourself, is there?
LA: No one was more shocked than myself! I have always been so healthy — I look like the picture of health right now [laughs]! I mean, I just have been a healthy eater. I take regular long walks with my little Bichon a couple of times a day and have just always taken care of myself. And then to find out that something like this is lurking in your body was just absolutely shocking for me.
It took me a while to get where I could even tell people, because I did not want anyone to feel sorry for me — and I never want to come across as weak. That’s just not me. I like to be strong. I like to be in control. I like to be in charge, you know? But, of course, I had to learn that sometimes you’re not always in control. And sometimes you have to rely on your faith and the people around you to get you through these times. There’s times in your faith where you have to show that you trust. You have to trust your doctors. You have to trust your business associates to take care of things for you.
CGM: As much as you are willing to share, what came after that phone call?
LA: I had an MRI and they also found atypical cells in my other breast. So that raised concerns. I decided on the lumpectomy because I am not an impulsive person at all — and I think you see that on the show. I like to think things through and not do anything rash. So I decided I was going to get the lumpectomy, and I had it on both sides.
I was very fortunate, because it had not gone into my lymph nodes yet. That was due to the fact that it was detected early. I had the new 3D mammogram and they caught my cancer early.
CGM: But that wasn’t the end of the story …
LA: After the lumpectomy, I still had atypical cells sitting outside of a cancer site, and they were very concerned about it. So my options were to go in and have another lumpectomy — remember I had atypical cells on the other side also — and if I had another lumpectomy and they still didn’t feel like they got all the cells then I would definitely have to have a mastectomy. Or I could just go ahead and get a double mastectomy.
So I really struggled with that in the show, with what to do. I end up having a double mastectomy and actually came to find out later — because they send your tissue for pathology reports — that that was the right thing to do. Because the atypical cells were all over the breast. They could have never gotten it with another lumpectomy.
I have another surgery in December. It’s been a long road. By the time I get through the second surgery in December, I will have been dealing with this for eight months. And this from a person who hasn’t missed a day of work in five years — that’s how healthy and strong I am. But when you get cancer, your whole life changes.
CGM: Literally overnight. I remember just being stunned at what my days instantly turned into and thinking, “This is never going to work, because I have so much other stuff I have to do!”
LA [laughing]: I know! The crazy thing about it is, at the very beginning you’re like, “How am I going to fit this into my schedule?!” You’re not worried about your health — it’s like, “My schedule! How’m I going to fit this in?!” My surgeon was thinking, “You are a nut!” Because I was like, “I’ve got two shows to film, I’ve got a business to run … “ And he’s like, “Honey, this is cancer.”
CGM: How did you decide that you were willing to chronicle your journey for the TLC cameras?
LA: The reason that I wanted to do this is because I wanted to take something very negative, and trying to find a reason for this — Why did I get cancer? Why do I have cancer? — so I’m trying to find a reason for this in my head. And I thought, “Well, why do I have two TV shows? I’m just a normal working mom here, so why do I have two TV shows?” And then it dawns on me — maybe I have cancer to tell this story. And maybe this story will help somebody facing what I’m facing be less afraid. Because, honey, I’m a big chicken! I don’t like doctors! I don’t like going to the doctor. I hate it! Right now I still hate it! But I got through it, and I got through it with flying colors. And I think if I can get through this, anybody can get through this.
CGM: Sounds like you’re showing some of the tough stuff, too …
LA: Some days were difficult to film. Some days I thought, “Oh, gosh, do I have to film this? I don’t want to film this!” But then I realized that this has got to be told. This story needs to be told. During this year alone over 200,000 women are going to be diagnosed with cancer. I’m just one of the faces of these 200,000 women who are going to be diagnosed with cancer. But my platform is, I’m able to tell the story and maybe help them. Maybe this will just hold their hand a little bit.
And it does need to be told. I know when I first told some people, they were so upset, they wouldn’t even look me in the eye. Like in the business environment when I was still working. I think it upset them so that they just didn’t know what to say and they couldn’t look me in the eye to speak. And you just want to say, “Hey, I’m still here. And I need for you to look me in the eye. I’m a person and I do have this wrong with me, but I’m facing it and I don’t want to be weak. So look me in the eye to talk to me!” It really, really bothered me, you know?
I think it’s because they’re so sad for you, and they think that you have one foot in the grave because you have cancer, and they’re so scared and they just won’t look you in the eye! You’ve got to uplift women. I wanted to be around people — well, Monte, for instance. He was like, “You’re going to be OK. You’re going to kick this in the ass. And you’re going to get through this.” I need that kind of people around me. I don’t want people saying, “Oh you poor little thing. I’m so sorry!” I don’t want that! Mmm-mmm! That just makes me feel sorry for myself and have a pity party — and I do not want a pity party. Don’t need one!
CGM: You actually tell your Bridals By Lori staff with the cameras rolling …
LA: That was one of the hardest days of my life! And the reason why is Bridals By Lori is something near and dear to my heart. I started my store right out of college and I’ve never really left it. Of course I’ve gone on vacation and this that and the other. But for long periods of time? For the period of time that I’m going to have to be out for breast cancer — and to know that?
And these people that I work with — these people are an extended part of my family. I love these people. And I knew they were really going to be upset, and I knew they were going to be afraid for not only what I was facing, but also for what was going to happen in the store. I was putting a heavy load and burden onto them, which really bothered me more than anything with breast cancer — all the burden I put on my family, all the burden I put on coworkers. But you can’t help it. There’s nothing you can do. You’ve just got to.
It made it that much more difficult to do, but then on the flipside of it, it was almost like therapy for me to go and sit in the room and talk to Jen Holbach, who is our executive producer and has been right by my side through this. She was at every single doctor’s appointment, she was at every single interview with me — so I’m sure she feels like she’s got breast cancer, too [laugh].
I’d ask something and she’d go, “No Lori, they said this.” Because I was on Mars by the time they finished telling me what they were going to do to me. So to do it in such a public platform made it a little more difficult — but then when I went into the room and sat down and could talk about it and articulated my feelings, it almost was like therapy for me.
CGM: That’s important — being able to give voice to exactly what you are feeling.
LA: I articulated things that you never say. “Yes, I’m afraid. Yes, I’m afraid I won’t be here next month. Yes, I’m afraid I won’t be here next year.” Things like that, that you are scared about and we all face when we are diagnosed. That part was really hard sometimes.
CGM: Do you expect to hear from the multiple brides who’ve dealt with cancer in one form or another that you’ve helped over the years on Say Yes to the Dress?
LA: When a bride would come in and her mother had died, I always felt a special connection to her, because I wanted to take away her pain and maybe to try to fill in a little bit as her mother. I always have. I’ve always gone the extra mile with a bride whose mother has faced breast cancer — and we’ve had many of them. I just want to be there for her and hold her hand.
One of my favorite brides was Julie Fillmore — her mother died of breast cancer three weeks before she came in, and my heart just went out to her. The whole time she was shopping, she was upset and I could tell she was upset. We just tried to make it a pleasant experience for her and then when she had her fitting I stayed right down there with her. I just wanted to make sure that she had somebody there that if she had any concerns she could bounce them off me like she would her mother.
She heard about the breast cancer and she reached out to me and said, “I’m just so upset!” But I feel like she and I had a special connection for a reason and I feel like that reason is because she needed me — and really I needed her, too. I did! Because I saw how strong she was in her appointment and how life goes on! And she got through this, so I’m thinking in my head, “You know, I can do this too!”
CGM: Have you returned to work yet?
LA: After about five weeks after my surgery, I started going back a little bit at a time. I was still very weak, so I started going back a little bit and a little bit at a time. And I am now back about three-quarters of the day.
I’m not rushing myself! I’m letting my body heal and I’m working slowly into getting back into the groove of things. I will never, ever say that this was the best thing that’s ever happened to me, because I don’t get people who say that. That’s just not me. But I will say that cancer has made me stop and smell the roses. I’m not going to rush through my days like a rat trying to get over here and do this and do that. I’m not doin’ it!
So I think that of the journey of cancer — and I don’t get that calling it a journey because I’ll never use that as a trip again, I’ll tell you that! — but of the journey of cancer, I do think that that is the most valuable lesson that I have learned from it. To appreciate every day and get up and be thankful you’re here. We’re always going to have to go back to the oncologist. We’re always going to have to go back to the surgeon. We’re always going to have to get checked. But that’s OK. We’re just going to consider it like a dentist appointment!
CGM: Yeah, you won’t catch me saying cancer’s the best thing that happened to me either, But it does do a really good job of helping you recognize what a problem — and a blessing — really is.
LA: My plastic surgeon said something interesting to me. She said, “You know, some people completely change their lives after cancer. They’ll go skydiving, they’ll change their careers, they get a divorce — they completely change their life. And I thought to myself, “Well, I wouldn’t change a thing! I love my life. I’m very happily married. I have a fabulous career. I love filming Say Yes to the Dress. I have fabulous friends.”
What I’m going to change is I’m going to appreciate everything even more!
Say Yes to the Cure: Lori’s Fight airs Friday, Oct. 26 at 10/9CT.