The star of Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta recalls that her wedding day was the most important of her life...until another day changed her forever.
Y’all might know me from TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta, the show where I help brides find their dream wedding dresses at my store, Bridals by Lori. I absolutely love what I do.
After all, my own wedding 32 years ago to my college sweetheart, Eddie, was the most important day of my life and I’d do it all over again (except for maybe those bright sunshine-yellow bridesmaid dresses, and, honey, I mean bright).
But there’s actually another important day in my life—one that changed it in ways I never could have imagined.
It was Friday, April 13, 2012. Eddie and I were walking out the door. He was going to the hospital for a routine procedure. We were almost at the car when my cell phone rang. Who’s calling at 7:05 A.M.? It was Dr. Moore, my longtime ob/ gyn.
“I’m so sorry, Lori,” he said, his voice cracking. “You’ve got breast cancer. We’ve caught it early, but it looks like there may be two types of cancers there. You’ll need to see a surgeon. Right away.”
“No!” I cried, collapsing into Eddie’s arms. I had a wonderful marriage, two kids, Mollie and Cory—one married, the other just out of college—a successful business, two hit TV shows.
God had given me opportunities and I’d taken charge of them. I was following his plan, wasn’t I? How could cancer be a part of that?
My passion for bridal fashion is embedded deep in my Southern roots. My mom’s twin sister, my aunt June Cottingham, owned a bridal shop in Birmingham, Alabama. Mom took me to visit all the time.
I was mesmerized by the rows of gorgeous embellished dresses, the veils and tiaras—it was like something out of a fairytale.
I watched Aunt June closely. She didn’t just take note of a bride’s style and body type, she’d take time to talk to each bride, get to know her. Then she’d say, “Try this one, honey,” and hand her a gown. Sure enough, the bride would put on the dress and light up the room.
I want to make someone that happy! I thought. I want to do what Aunt June does.
I got my chance while I was studying business and fashion merchandising at Columbia College. I worked for a few bridal stores part-time and I loved helping brides of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds find their perfect gown.
“This is the one,” they’d tell me, tears of joy in their eyes, and I’d get the biggest rush. A feeling that this was what I was meant to be doing.
Lord, I prayed, I’d love to have my own bridal shop someday. Can you help me make that happen?
God worked fast. Real fast. At the end of my senior year, I found out about a storefront in an Atlanta shopping plaza that was available for rent. It was tiny as all get out but a great location.
My sweet parents, Carroll and Jean Burns, took some of their savings and financed my opening for a college graduation gift and, 12 days after my graduation, on December 27, 1980, I opened Bridals by Lori. I had four dressing rooms and maybe 25 dresses. Now it was time for me to get to work.
And did I work. I was busier than a bee making honey! I wanted Bridals by Lori to become the biggest bridal store in Georgia, in the South, in the whole country, even.
Sometimes it was really rough juggling the shop with raising the kids, but I was the captain of the ship, and the captain never shows her fear, never lets anyone see her panic. I just kept working hard and praying even harder. And with help from Eddie and my parents, I kept the ship sailing.
Little by little the business grew. We moved to bigger storefronts in the shopping plaza. We decided it was time to purchase our own building, so in 2000 we constructed my dream store.
In 2001, we moved to our beautiful 25,000-square-foot space with three floors: bridal, bridesmaids and menswear, making us one of the largest full-service bridal salons in the country.
Two years ago TLC called and before I knew it we were shooting Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta and another show, Say Yes to the Dress: Bridesmaids. What a whirlwind!
When the reminder card for my annual mammogram came in the mail, I set it on the counter and promptly forgot about it. A few days later I got a voicemail reminder from Northside Hospital. I ignored it.
With family life, running the bridal salon and filming two TV shows, something had to give. Besides, I’d had yearly mammograms up till then, did regular self-checks, ate healthy and exercised. Heck, I hadn’t missed a day of work in six years! Then the reminder card came again. So I went, grumbling.
Two days later I had to go back for a second mammogram. I’d had that happen before and it turned out to be nothing, so I wasn’t concerned. But this time the second mammogram showed something suspicious.
“We’ll need to do a biopsy,” Dr. Moore said. “Try not to worry; most lumps are benign.” Who had time to worry?
Then came that call at 7:05 A.M. on Friday the 13th. I took Eddie to the hospital for his procedure in a daze. I sat in the waiting room, questions swirling in my mind. Two types of cancer...what did that mean? Where would I find a good surgeon? Was I going to die?
Eddie’s surgeon, Dr. Garcha, came out to the waiting room. “The procedure went smoothly,” he said. “Eddie’s fine.”
I breathed a sigh of relief.
Dr. Garcha must have seen something in my expression. “What’s the matter?” he asked.
“I was just diagnosed with, um, I have...” I couldn’t even say the words “I have breast cancer” but he figured it out. He told me that he performed breast surgery too, and agreed to be my surgeon.
MRI scans showed that I had cancer in my right breast, only it was complicated. There were two types of cancer cells growing in that breast. One was a ductal carcinoma, which is fairly common, and the other was a more vicious linear-growing carcinoma. There were atypical cells in my left breast too.
“You have two options,” Dr. Garcha said. “A lumpectomy, where we remove the lump and surrounding tissue in the hopes of getting rid of all the cancer, then we hit it with radiation. Or, we can perform a mastectomy where we remove the entire breast.”
That night I talked my choices over with Eddie. “I don’t know what to do,” I said.
He pulled me close. “Listen,” he said, “you are going to beat this. We’re going to beat this. Whatever you choose, I’ll support you.”
I felt so blessed to have Eddie and the kids to lean on, but they couldn’t make this decision for me. Lord, whatever the right choice is, please let me feel at peace with it, I prayed. I did some research online and decided on a double lumpectomy.
I’d read that with the radiation it was just as effective as a mastectomy and I didn’t want to leave atypical cells in the noncancerous breast.
The lumpectomy went more quickly than I had expected, and the pain afterward wasn’t bad. But the strange thing was, I didn’t feel at peace at all. I was scared, really scared.
Dr. Garcha called me at work with the results. “Lori, the pathology report wasn’t clean,” he said. “We removed the tumor in your right breast but there are atypical cells extending into the surrounding tissue, which raises concern.
"Remember, there were atypical cells in your left breast and if we didn’t get all of those, they could eventually become cancerous too.”
I felt almost dizzy with fear. “We can do another lumpectomy,” Dr. Garcha went on. “Or do a bilateral mastectomy, remove both breasts. Let me know your decision as soon as you can.”
I hung up the phone, tried to get a hold of myself. “What do you want me to do now, God?” I asked. I heard a voice from deep within. Are you really listening to me? it seemed to say.
I looked out at the salon floor, at my bridal consultants helping brides find their dream dress, at the thriving business I’d built from the ground up. That’s when it hit me.
Yes, I’d worked hard—really hard—to build this business but I hadn’t done it on my own. I wasn’t the captain of the ship. God was. Always had been. Hadn’t I gone to him from the get-go with my idea of running my own bridal shop and asked him to help me?
Who else could have guided me from that first inkling to the little storefront with 25 dresses all the way here to one of the largest full-service bridal salons in America? Who better to steer me through the rough waters of breast cancer?
Suddenly it was clear what I needed to do. I called Dr. Garcha back. “Let’s do the bilateral mastectomy,” I told him. As soon as I said those words, I felt the peace I’d been praying for.
This time after the surgery Dr. Garcha had great news for me: The pathology report came back clear. I didn’t need radiation or chemotherapy. “You made the right decision,” said Dr. Garcha. “There were so many atypical cells that it would’ve been impossible to remove them all without a mastectomy.”
I’ve had two reconstructive surgeries since then and I’m regaining my strength. My breast cancer journey was featured on a special called Say Yes to the Cure: Lori’s Fight. Opening up about my struggle and my fears was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
I’ve heard from so many people with cancer, including brides who come into my shop. The outpouring of love and support from fans of the show has been overwhelming, and I’ve received nothing but positive comments from telling my breast cancer story on TLC.
In fact, many women tell me as a result of the show, they’ve made the mammogram appointment and they’ll be less afraid if they do get that dreaded phone call.
I pray the cancer is gone for good. Yet something stayed, a peace I’d never known before my illness, a peace born of a knowledge that my course is set, navigated from above.
|Lori Allen’s new book, Say Yes to What’s Next: How to Age With Elegance and Class While Never Losing Your Beauty and Sass!, is available in bookstores now.|
For more inspiring stories, subscribe to Guideposts magazine.