Sep 9, 2010

Lisa Ray emerges ‘enriched’ from battle with cancer

Lisa Ray says she's ready to plunge into acting again. She was diagnosed with an incurable cancer last year. Deborah Baic / The Globe and Mail

She gives countless speeches advocating stem cell research, does charity work for Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, blogs to a global audience and is writing a book on her own cancer experience.

Lisa Ray – internationally known actress, star of the Oscar-nominated film Water – rushed back from India, where she’s thrown her support behind several cancer initiatives, to partake in the Toronto International Film Festival this week.

“I’m just launching myself back into acting,” Ms. Ray says. “Now I feel strong and confident in body, mind and spirit.… I have found, coming out the other end, that the single most useful revelation for me in the healing process has been being open, and sharing aspects of what people might consider a private experience.”

A year ago to the day, a tired and very swollen Lisa Ray sat in the sun-dappled courtyard of her Toronto townhouse to speak publicly, for the first time, about her recent diagnosis with an incurable form of blood cancer called multiple myeloma.

At the time, it was clear that the stiff cocktail of chemo and steroids she was taking to combat the rare form of cancer attacking her red blood cells was exacting a toll on the Toronto-born former model and Bollywood star, once voted one of the 10 most beautiful women of the millennium in a Times of India poll.

Thirty-seven at the time of her diagnosis, Ms. Ray knew the coming year was going to be a struggle. She also knew she’d grow to three to five times her normal, diminutive size, and that she’d be facing a stem cell transplant in January that would sap her of all energy, leave her quarantined for weeks, and result in complete hair loss.

But rather than wait for her brown curls to fall out, Ms. Ray, who is now six months in remission, says she opted to grab an electric razor. “I pre-empted it by shaving my head, which was actually kind of fun,” says Ms. Ray in an interview with the Globe and Mail this week.

“I have a very symmetrical head as it turns out,” she says with a laugh. “My stem cell transplant was on Christmas, which for me, meant there was a lot of rebirth imagery to play with. So shaving my head kind of felt appropriate. Symbolically it felt like I was expressing a new arc. A new sense of being.”

Just like a year ago, Ms. Ray, who is of Indian and Polish descent, seems remarkably upbeat when discussing the challenges of coping with a disease that afflicts roughly 6,000 Canadians – usually people over the age of 70. According to Canadian Cancer Statistics, new cases of multiple myeloma are estimated to reach 2,200, with 1,400 deaths.

On this day, Ms. Ray sits in a vast public atrium a stone’s throw from Princess Margaret, which she revisits every two months for the requisite checkup. Dressed in tight jeans, a sweater coat rimmed with faux fur, and black biker boots, she is back to her size two. She has grown back some hair, now tightly curled, in a pixie style. Her skin has lost the sallowness, and her eyes are no longer glassy.

But while she is upbeat, she accepts the fact her cancer may return. (When doctors did the transplant, they extracted an extra bag of stem cells in case they’re required down the road.) Still, Ms. Ray is banking on at least 20 years.

“I feel good today, but I’m not saying this has remotely been easy,” she says. “I think I’m still processing, and trying to understand in what way – and this is going to sound very strange – this experience has enriched my life.”

Still, there were dark moments. She had four months of aggressive chemo and steroids. The procedure itself took two days. “One day they blast you with chemo, and the next they infuse you with stem cells. So basically it’s killing you and bringing you back to life.”

The steroids also resulted in massive mood swings – “not a delight for the people around me.” On the upside, they gave her energy, which led to her writing her blog. (The blog, which has garnered responses from around the world, is The Yellow Diaries at

Cancer, she says, does collateral damage. “There is the blow to the self-esteem because your appearance alters. You can’t work anymore, which was bizarre for me since I’ve worked steadily since I was 16,” she says, explaining that most lower-budget Canadian feature films can’t afford to hire a cancer patient because of the spiked insurance costs, which don’t subside until a person is six months in remission.

“Having never been ill before, I just didn’t have the coping mechanism. There is a sense of isolation. You don’t want to drown in self-pity, and you’re not asking for pity, maybe just empathy.”

Ms. Ray says the vital lesson is to ask for help. “I talked about it with friends and colleagues,” she adds, citing many people, including her former partner whom she refers to as Bob Cat, for their unflagging support.

The only child, who established a career in Bollywood while still in her teens, then moved on to London to study drama, says her illness forced her to slow down and take stock. She put permanent roots down in Toronto last year, and bought a heritage home on a hill in Nelson, B.C., a town she calls “a healing place.” She spent the month of August on the West Coast, close to her father who moved there recently (her mother has passed away).

Among her current projects, she is developing a TV documentary series, in which she hopes to interview people from across Canada who have faced life-threatening challenges, and survived.

“My life is unfolding in completely new and unanticipated ways,” Ms. Ray says. “I’m doing everything I did before, but now I always stop and make sure I’m not taking on too much.… Like many people, I used to push myself – to stay in the race, and keep ahead of the race. I do things differently now. My goal is just to live well. Enjoy. Nothing more grand than that.”

(Source: The Globe and Mail / Gayle MacDonald)

(Photo: Deborah Baic / The Globe and Mail)

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