What’s Next After Breast Cancer?

If you ever look at the calendar of a cancer survivor, you can’t help but notice some dates boldly circled, starred, and asterisked. Cancer survivors religiously acknowledge the months, days, hours, and sometimes right down to the very minute when life as we knew it was changed forever. For me, it’s the call I received from my doctor on Friday, April 13, 2012, at 7:05 AM. 

Our community, the cancer community, solemnly recalls diagnosis day, celebrates our cancerversary – also known as the day we have been declared officially in remission – and annually we join the world in recognizing survivorship on National Cancer Survivors Day. I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t feel deeply grateful for my second chance at life, for all of those miracle moments that led up to my breast cancer diagnosis, to the village of support that I had from my family to my team of doctors, nurses and physical therapists, who pieced me back together again. And I’m sure other survivors feel the same. 

At the start of my breast cancer journey, I reluctantly invited the Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta crew to come behind the scenes and film my cancer journey. Although I felt uncertain and vulnerable, my goal was to help at least one other person also facing cancer not feel so alone. The award-winning TLC special, Say Yes to the Cure: Lori’s Fight, documents the most challenging time in my life. But I’m so proud of the impact it has made in early detection, and the support the message has offered for others amid their respective battles. 

 

Now, there are days when I look back at my grueling breast cancer fight and I cannot believe that I am blessed enough to still be here. I think about the God-given strength that came from within and carried me through the physical pain of multiple surgeries and the resulting battle scars, of being afraid to look at my own body in the mirror or the surreal moment when I selected the pigment for my tattooed nipples. I remember those nights after my mastectomy when I woke up drenched in sweat and had to hobble to the bathroom as the drains hung off my body like Christmas ornaments.

Immediately after I was declared in remission, I felt completely lost as weird as that sounds. I should have been happy, but cancer defined my normal for over a year. I quietly wondered, what now? What’s next? After I took the time to rest and heal, I dusted off my stilettos and decided to take my breast cancer battle, and my position as a TV personality, as a calling to spread my story far and wide beyond the TLC special. I was on a mission to help other women with their breast cancer battles. 

Today, I travel around the nation speaking to cancer patients and survivors for fundraisers, hospital openings, races, and other special events. I’ve met so many women who have been touched by my own story and made a life-saving mammogram appointment or became essential support for the breast cancer fighters in their lives. In my personal life, I stopped sweating the small stuff and focused more on the things that truly matter to me: my family, my friends, my puppy Chloe, and my support network. I took solace in my store, Bridals by Lori, where I gained back my self-confidence and independence. I started writing my forthcoming book, Say Yes to What’s Next, to inspire other women to make the most out of life. And I leaned in eagerly looking toward my future, and actively started planning the life I wanted to lead and the lasting impact that I wanted to leave behind.  

Now that we’re all facing a global pandemic, many of us immunocompromised cancer survivors are feeling a familiar sense of panic. For those who recently finished treatment, this was supposed to be their year to restart their new post-cancer lives. Instead, many have been sheltering at home and wondering if they will ever be able to accomplish the things they were dreaming about during treatment. The trips they visualized during a PET-CT scan, the classes or hobbies they were going to take up, or the time they were going to shift from their jobs to their families. 

To all of us cancer survivors, let’s not allow fear to rule our lives once again. I say don’t give up hope on that tomorrow you’ve been dreaming about. This bump in the road is just that: a bump in your new life’s journey. Acknowledge the difficulty and disappointment, and then tap back into those reserves of hope and optimism that you used to get through cancer. We didn’t let cancer win, and we won’t allow COVID-19 to win either. 

I celebrate surviving each day – pandemic or no pandemic. This year, I’m going to spend some time on National Cancer Survivors Day doing something special for myself and my loved ones. Here are a couple of things I’ve been thinking about to mark the day:

  • Spend time gardening – Gardening for me was part of my post-cancer rehabilitation; surrounding myself with growth and life has helped tremendously. Every spring, I plant pots and flower beds of fresh flowers – mostly pink – to remind me of new beginnings. 
  • Gather together your loved ones – This can be done virtually or, depending on the regulations in your area, in person. Gather together the loved ones who saw you through your worst moments, and take some time to reflect on your journey and your blessings. Your cancer journey impacted your family, too, so ask them to share as well. 
  • Schedule a doctor’s appointment – I cannot stress enough the importance of early detection on saving lives. I kept putting off my annual mammogram and if it weren’t for the tenacity of the nurses at Northside Breast Care Center, I probably wouldn’t be here today. I know that it’s frightening right now to leave the house, and enter a doctor’s office no less, but it’s so important to keep up with your health and appointments. 
  • Document your feelings – COVID-19 has been mentally taxing for all of us. Take time on this special day to document how you’re feeling about your cancer journey during the pandemic. Be honest and transparent during this time of quiet reflection but also be sure to list your blessings. 
  • Treat yo self – Your favorite ice cream, a private socially-distanced yoga session, a gift certificate for a future spa appointment, or an online shopping spree for new makeup. Celebrate your alive-ness on this day by pampering yourself just a little.

National Cancer Survivors Day is a What’s Next moment for all of us. We remember those who won their battles on the other side, honor those who are currently fighting and celebrate those who survived. No matter where you are in your journey or how your life has been impacted by cancer, I encourage you to take stock of where you are and where you want to go. I passionately believe that the best is yet to come for all of us.

Until next time,

Lori Allen