When Allie Allen was in the eighth grade, she was diagnosed with stage 3 brain cancer. A follow-up scan in 2014 revealed that she was all clear, but the next year, her mother, Debbi Allen, was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. As Debbi was beginning the radiation stage of her treatment, Allie was diagnosed again, with another cancerous tumor, and the pair began radiation on the same day. Then, in 2018, yet another tumor was discovered in Allie’s brain, but this time, it was discovered to be slow-growing with no known cure.
Debbi has now been in remission for nearly a year, while Allie continues her fight. With six years and four rounds of cancer between them, the pair have become well-versed in leaning on comfort, comedy and collaboration to keep their hope alive and their dreams big. Here, these brave women tell us how cancer has shaped their mother/daughter bond and how they manage to keep fighting through it all. Let’s meet today’s FACES of Memphis, Debbi and Allie Allen!
What has been your biggest challenge in this journey so far?
Debbi: The fear of the unknown. I worry. I want Allie to live forever, to be old and gray. I want her to have children and grandchildren.
Allie: Knowing there is something in my brain, but not knowing exactly what it is. It’s slow-growing, and for the first time in six years, the doctors have started spreading my scans out to every six months. Also, it’s challenging because I look normal, but I take 127 pills a week, and very often my peers don’t understand when I don’t feel well or that I have a handicap that allows me to have accommodations at school. I feel like they try to understand, but it’s easy for them to forget in everyday life. I have people who know me and my story well, but who still argue with me about whether or not my cancer qualifies me for special accommodations. It’s hard to explain that I seem normal, but my life is not normal.
Debbi, what advice would you give to a parent who has a child with cancer?
Always give your child hope. There are always people researching and finding cures, and miracles happen every day. Your child feeds off you. I would always say the glass is half full. I cry away from her. I don’t let her see my tears and fears. If you’re scared, your child will be scared.
As an older child, Allie is privy to many of the conversations with the doctors, and while most of them are positive, there have been moments when our doctor told us there was no hope. But you have to keep believing. You don’t have to sugarcoat the situation, but you have to have hope. Allie’s dad’s approach is to give her whatever she wants. Allie keeps a recording of her dad saying, “Buy whatever you want, your dad supports it.” I try to keep things as normal as possible by making her do chores. Allie’s easy though.
Allie, what piece of advice would you give to a mom?
Allie: Recently, a sorority sister’s mom was diagnosed with cancer, and I gave her the piece of advice I give to everyone. I tell people that the most important thing to remember is that God has a plan. My faith gets me through all of this.
Debbi: Her faith is her stronghold. It gets her through everything, and I try to remember that it could be worse. At St. Jude, we are constantly reminded that even in our most challenging moment, there are others who are worse off.
Allie: Literally, the doctors give me so much hope, yet there have been moments when they have told me that I would not have much time. But God has a plan for me. I am still here. I cling to the Bible verse, “Be still and know that I am God.”
Debbi: Allie is never concerned for herself; she is always concerned for us and how our family will feel if something happens to her. I wish I was half as good as her.
Debbi, what has Allie taught you?
To cry. (Laughter) I’ve grown through this journey. Allie has taught me to be faithful, and she has inspired me through her faith. She has always been our leader. She encourages our family to get up and go to church.
Allie, where does your faith come from?
Allie: I have had a strong connection to God since I was little.
Debbi: When she was little, she would make me cards with a cross and the sun shining. She would always say, “God loves you, and I love you.”
Allie: I pray about everything in my life. I have since I was very little. God inspires me constantly. He even sends people who I don’t know to remind me that He hears my prayers. Recently, we were in Puerto Rico, and two men dressed as Spiderman and Deadpool came walking alongside me and my friend. I asked why they were dressed up, and they told me that they dressed up and visited sick children in hospitals to make them feel better.
Before they walked away, the guy dressed as Deadpool looked at me and said, “You are going to beat this, you are going to be okay.” I don’t know how he knew I had cancer because, other than my hair, it’s not obvious. I could have Alopecia. I asked the group if they told him and they all said no. I felt God in that. God knows I deal with my situation with humor, so I definitely think He would send a guy dressed as Deadpool to give me a message. I was in Walmart, and a lady approached me boldly and said, “Excuse me. God told me to tell you that you are going to be alright.” I hugged her immediately and called my mom crying.
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Allie, what do you admire most about your mom?
The thing I admire about her also makes me mad — she doesn’t care about herself because she cares so much about others. And she makes everything funny.
Debbi, what do you admire most about Allie?
I admire the grace with which she handles every challenge. Her hair may never grow back, and she embraces her look and her style with grace. She tells me she misses her hair, and I tell her she can wear a wig, but she says it’s not the same. She will wear wigs for fun. She will have a momentary meltdown, but most of the time she holds it all together – school, the medications, not feeling well, her sorority life and her social circles — gracefully.
Can you share a heartwarming or special tradition you enjoy together?
Debbi: We go see [the Broadway play] Wicked every time we go to New York. We have fun together through laughter and shocking comedy. When we both had cancer, we loved to shock people by being in public and saying things to each other like, “What happened to your hair?”
Has cancer changed your relationship?
Debbi: I can’t answer that. We never knew life with her as a teen without cancer. Cancer is our normal. I’d like to think we’d be just as close even without the cancer. We’ve spent so much time together. We have even slept together most nights for the past six years, aside from when she’s at school.
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Debbi: My cell phone, Pinot Grigio and the beach
Allie: Memphis Grizzlies, make-up and coffee
Thanks for sharing this story with us, Debbi and Allie! And thank you to Elizabeth Looney for the beautiful photos.
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