Bridal shop owner Lori Allen had it all, including two successful TV shows, a strong marriage and loving children. But it took a breast cancer diagnosis for her to finally care for the most important thing of all—herself.
Lori Allen’s story is not unlike a lot of women’s. Prioritizing herself—her wellness, her self-care, her health—came second to the needs of her family and business. And like many other women, Allen also delayed her routine checkups. On the outside, there was nothing in Allen’s life to suggest that she wasn’t as healthy as ever. She still tried to exercise (although not as regularly as she would have liked) and she ate as healthily as she could.
But as many cancer warriors and thrivers have come to learn through their own experiences, a perception of health is not the same thing as actual health. And for Allen, who owns the bridal shop Bridals by Lori and is best known for shows like “Say Yes to the Dress,” her perception of her own health was a far cry from the underlying reality of her body.
In 2012, Allen was diagnosed with breast cancer, and it was her diagnosis that finally taught her to prioritize her own health. Now, Allen hopes to share what she’s learned (along with a host of other lessons) in her new book, “Say Yes to What’s Next: How to Age with Elegance and Class While Never Losing Your Beauty and Sass,” out now.
Allen’s diagnosis came at a particularly difficult time. “I think a lot of women do what I did. I put my health on the backburner,” she recalls. “As we get busier and busier, have children, we put everything above our own personal self. We just do it all the time.”
Luckily, her doctor’s office was persistent. After receiving a yearly reminder in the mail to get a mammogram, Allen threw it aside, claiming she had no time to schedule one this year. At the time, she was filming two shows for TLC, “Say Yes for the Dress: Atlanta” and “Say Yes to the Dress: Bridesmaids.”
“Life takes over our health and we [aren’t] stopping to look inward. We let these crazy little things that are not as important take over that appointment for that mammogram,” she says. But her physician’s office continued pursuing her by phone until she finally squeezed in an appointment at the last minute. During the appointment, she paid extra for a 3D mammogram, a cost she says “saved” her life. The mammogram caught what she could not feel on the outside of her body.
Allen later went home and was told she needed to return for a biopsy. Allen had found lumps and gotten biopsies in the past, so she was not too worried. “I’m worried about [my husband]. I’m thinking about the store. I’m thinking about a million other things,” she recalls. However, unlike past experiences, this new biopsy hurt.
Days later, on the same day her husband—who had a carcinoid tumor on his intestine—was scheduled for surgery, Allen received the devastating news. “I got the call and before [my doctor] said anything, I knew,” Allen recalls. “Because why else would he be calling me at 7:05 a.m.?”
Her doctor said she needed to see a surgeon and, in a strange coincidence, recommended the same one operating on her husband. “I remember feeling like a spinning top. My world was turned upside down. Like everybody that gets that cancer diagnosis, you can’t breathe, you can’t focus,” she says.
Even if the diagnosis is bad, you can say yes to this next chapter or thing that’s happening to you and turn it into something positive.Lori Allen
Her breast cancer journey, like most people’s, was more challenging than she imagined. And like the original diagnosis itself, life continued to throw curveballs at her. Her original treatment, for example, included a lumpectomy and radiation in her right breast. But in the days and weeks after her lumpectomy, she “didn’t feel at peace.” Two weeks later, she learned she still had atypical cells in her left breast. Allen weighed her options. Did she want to have another lumpectomy and live in fear forever, or did she want to try and find peace somewhere. Although the men in her life wanted her to get another lumpectomy because they did not want to see her in pain, her children asked her to get a double mastectomy. “We want you here, not your breasts,” Allen recalls.
She opted for the double mastectomy, and although the recovery—which included physical therapy—was rough, Allen also says it taught her how strong she is. “You have to figure out what you want to do for your body,” she says. “I’m not any exception. I just realized how tough I am inside, how determined I am to get better and I have a lot to live for. You’ve got to fight this.”
Years later, Allen is cancer-free and she credits her breast cancer journey with inspiring her to write her new book, “Say Yes to What’s Next: How to Age with Elegance and Class While Never Losing Your Beauty and Sass,” released this July. Her cancer experience, she says, was a test of faith. How do you feel about this? Are you going to cave in and let this overtake your life? What are you going to do about this? For Allen, what she did, as she says, was “get [her] mind right.”
“Even if the diagnosis is bad, you can say yes to this next chapter or thing that’s happening to you and turn it into something positive,” begins Allen. “Do I want to say [it was] good here? No, because I never wish breast cancer on anybody. I hate it. But can I turn it into something more positive? Yes, I can.”
It’s the kind of philosophy that can apply to many situations in one’s life, not just cancer, Allen says. The book was an opportunity for Allen to continue to share that message. “I want these women to stop and embrace their lives and embrace themselves and embrace what’s next in their lives,” she says.
It’s the sort of lesson Allen herself had to learn. Years after her cancer diagnosis and treatment, Allen says embracing herself has become a top priority. “Getting to this point of feeling good now took awhile,” Allen recalls. “You’ve got to be kind and patient with yourself. And I found that very hard. It wasn’t an overnight thing.” Being kind to herself involved a mix of self-care practices, from daily devotionals readings to clean eating to exercise. All in all, it took her about a year and a half to start looking and feeling like “Lori” again, and that slow process of healing is one she doesn’t take for granted.
“I take time for Lori. That taught me to take time for Lori, because Lori was one of these ladies that put herself on the backburner, put her family first, put her business first. Everybody came before Lori came. And after breast cancer, I don’t feel guilty at all for taking time for myself,” she says. “You realize that if you don’t have your health and your spiritual well being and your family, that’s what you need to live and to survive. It took me going through all of that to appreciate everything I had surrounding me. All the other stuff I thought was important wasn’t.”
“Say Yes to What’s Next” is geared toward women like Lori, women who may be on the brink of a burnout, women who don’t always put themselves first, women for whom health and wellness have stopped being a priority. In writing to them, Lori is frank and open, using her real-life experiences through the lens of honesty and humor to motivate others to live their best lives.
“I want us to start reclaiming ourselves. I’m not saying quit your job tomorrow, but I’m saying stop and take some time for you,” says Allen. “I want women to walk away from it feeling inspired. That’s my whole goal here, to motivate women in this next phase or next chapter of our lives, to embrace it and to move forward in our passions.”
“Say Yes to What’s Next: How to Age with Elegance and Class While Never Losing Your Beauty and Sass” is available for purchase at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble or through your local bookstore. New episodes of “Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta” appear on TLC.