She’s best known as the ethereal beauty of Oscar-nominated Water. Or the femme fatale in the movie hit Bollywood Hollywood.
But these days Lisa Ray is using her star power for something far more personal and important.
The actress-model from Toronto was in Halifax on Thursday to shine the spotlight on a rare form of cancer that took her hair, her strength and almost her life.
"It’s my most heartfelt role to date," says the performer, her once long locks replaced by a short curly bob, her enthusiasm for making a difference spilling over.
The 39-year-old performer first learned she had multiple myeloma in July 2009.
She’d been extremely fatigued before the diagnosis and friends convinced her to go for blood tests.
What her doctor found — a red blood cell count so low she needed immediate transfusions — was a shock.
So was the subsequent diagnosis: incurable blood cancer of the bone marrow that’s usually fatal.
"I’d never heard of it," says the emerald-eyed beauty.
She’d been filming so much in Canada and India she’d put her tiredness down to work and jet lag.
"You never think it’s going to happen to you."
And she didn’t even know what "it" was.
But Ray, now in remission, hopes her fame helps shine a light on this little-known cancer that affects about 6,000 Canadians at any one time and made her re-evaluate what’s really important in life.
That includes shedding what she calls the "pathology of perfection in our society."
Ray’s often been held up as one of the epitomes of physical perfection. But when steroids bloated her body and food cravings made her put on weight and her long, straight hair fell out, she had to confront the basis of her own self-worth.
"I had to come face-to-face with perceptions of myself," she says. "You know, ‘(What) is my own self esteem wrapped up in?’ "
She had a bit of an epiphany in September 2009 while walking the red carpet at the Toronto Film Festival, where she first revealed her diagnosis.
"I was 40 pounds overweight and in a strange way, because I’d made my peace with it, I was less self-conscious than I’d ever been previous. There I was bloated and fat and transformed and yet I thought you know what? There’s nothing taboo about what I’m going through. I’m fighting for my life . . . and I’m grateful for every moment now, every step that I can take. Why shouldn’t I celebrate that?"
While steroids, chemotherapy and a subsequent stem cell transplant put Ray in remission, she knows there’s a "good chance" the cancer will come back.
But she stresses that science has made great strides in treatment. And she hopes by talking about the disease she can bring more awareness and research funding to the cause.
She also wants to ensure treatment options are equally available for everyone across Canada. Coverage, she says, varies from province to province.
But for now, Ray’s just happy to be alive. And she’s appreciating all the moments of living.
"I think for me a big lesson . . . has been not to push myself so much, to like sit back. It’s OK sometimes to just be. You don’t have to be doing all the time. . . .
"I just want to spend some time healing, doing a little bit of nothing" and thinking "how do I squeeze the maximum amount of joy out of this day?"
For more information go to www.myelomacanada.ca.
(Photo: Holly Dunn / Myeloma Canada)