In 2013, Allie Allen was the 14-year-old captain of her junior high dance team when she started to feel strange every day around lunch. After the brief, but indescribable sensation passed, she would become exhausted.
She shrugged it off until a practice at Schilling Middle School in Collierville, Tennessee, when the spell hit so hard she completely stopped dancing. She saw a doctor who first thought it was anxiety, or simple exhaustion from being an active person in a growing body.
But Allen soon found out it was something far worse. She had been suffering focal seizures and was diagnosed with a golf ball-size brain tumor.
She faced the tough decision of having surgery or delaying the procedure to go to nationals with her dance team. She danced, but once the competition was over, she opted for surgery, an eight-hour ordeal that led to the discovery that her tumor was an extremely rare form of brain cancer found almost exclusively in toddlers. The teen was told she wouldn’t live to graduate from high school. But her story didn’t end there.
After two bouts with cancer, she’s a University of Mississippi sophomore majoring in integrated marketing communications. She had a 4.0 grade-point average her first semester and finished her freshman year with a 3.6 GPA.
“I won’t let cancer define me,” she said. “I take 126 pills each week, but I try to live life as much as I can. I just have to work twice as hard as everybody else.”
Her upbeat demeanor belies the struggle her life has been. After treatment stopped the tumor from growing in 2013, it began to grow again in 2015. On top of that, her mother, Debbi Allen, had been neglecting a concerning lump in her breast while her daughter underwent treatment. Once she saw a doctor, Debbi found out she had breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes.
“We both lost all of our hair,” Allie said. “We were baldies together. It was a unique experience.”
The two found themselves going through radiation treatments together after Debbi completed her chemotherapy. They moved into an apartment in downtown Memphis to be closer to hospitals for seven months while they underwent treatment.
“It was bonding,” Debbi said. “We spent every second together.”
Allie’s determination to live a normal life despite her long, difficult battle with cancer is inspiring, her mother said. She wrote about her experiences on her blog, “dancerwithcancer,” which she wanted to use as a tool to help others going through the same struggles. Her nature definitely had an effect on Debbi, who drew strength from Allie during her own health struggles.
“I’m very, very proud,” Debbi said. “I’m raising a good one.”
Debbi’s cancer is gone. Allie still has a small tumor in her brain. Her kind of cancer has a high rate of recurrence, so she has to get scans at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital about every two months.
“I’m not in remission,” Allie said. “We’re just watching my tumor and praying that it doesn’t grow because they haven’t discovered a cure for me yet.”
It’s easy to wonder why the two wound up in the incredibly unlikely scenario of a mother and daughter having cancer at the same time. Debbi says her daughter has one theory that makes her sad.
“She says to me, ‘I heard you praying over me when I was in the hospital,” Debbi said. “I heard you asking God to take cancer from me and give it to you.’ I got my cancer a few months later.”
Despite being dealt such a tough hand, Debbi said her husband, Eric Allen, a pilot for Fed Ex, has been extremely strong and caring as his wife and daughter have gone through their treatments. She credits him and the couple’s son, Zach Allen, for being there for her and her daughter.
These days, Allie doesn’t dance anymore, not because she can’t. She’s just a busy college student with a full schedule of classes and being active with Tri Delta sorority. She also has a new passion that she learned while being treated at St. Jude.
Being bald during the awkward teen years was tough, but she found that she loved doing her makeup.
“When I was bald, makeup was something I loved,” Allie said. “It showed that I am a girl and into girly things.”
She works with a spa, doing makeup for brides and others. She finds that work extremely rewarding.
“I love making girls feel pretty,” Allie said.
She also raises money and makes appearances on behalf of St. Jude. She hopes to work full-time for the hospital one day so she can help support its mission to help children with cancer.
Though she battles side effects from medicines and treatments, Allie doesn’t do any less than a normal college student would, including handling her own laundry and chores. She has parts of the workings of her brain missing, she said, so she has to work harder than most on schoolwork.
She also lives every day with a reminder of what she’s been through in the form of a spot on the side of her head where her hair won’t grow back. Her mom gives her credit for rocking a pixie haircut that suits her, nonetheless.
The positive vibe her presence gives off doesn’t match up with what someone might expect from a person who has fought cancer twice and lives with a brain tumor.
Allie’s drive to be “normal” comes partially from a realization that many of the friends she made who also had cancer are no longer alive. She lives for them.
“I really think about that all of the time,” Allie said. “It’s called survivor’s guilt. I think about my last dance. Then, my tumor was stable and it hadn’t grown. A lot of my friends had gotten re-diagnosed with their brain cancers around then. That should have been me.”
While she works through survivor’s guilt, she also takes comfort in knowing that she has been given a gift: the opportunity to keep on living.
“They told me I wouldn’t make it to my high school graduation,” Allie said. “Statistics don’t mean anything to me, but only God knows when my time will come. No one really knows what is going to happen. I know that there is a plan for me out there.”
This story was written by Michael Newsom for Ole Miss News.