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Lisa Ray: Of beauty and a battle for life

Last updated on: September 6, 2010 12:12 IST

Lisa Ray: Of beauty and a battle for life

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Abhishek Mande

The Canadian model and actress, who was in Mumbai to inaugurate a cancer institute, speaks about her 'rebirth' following her fight against the disease.

On June 23 last year, Lisa Ray revealed publicly that she had cancer. The Toronto-based actress wrote that she was suffering from multiple myeloma, a relatively rare type of blood cancer.

Multiple myeloma, known to have affected barely 6,000 Canadians so far, is known to be a disease of the elderly, affecting people in their 60s.

Ray, 36, is perhaps one of the few exceptions.

Dr Boman Dhabhar, a prominent oncologist in Mumbai, tells you that the disease affects the kidneys and bones and its treatment is very aggressive. "It involves a cocktail of targeted drugs that bring the disease under control following a stem cell transplant. Most of the time multiple myeloma is incurable and even after a transplant, the disease tends to comes back," he says.

Lisa Ray has called it a cancer that isn't as 'sexy' as the others and has been speaking about it on all available platforms. Last week in Mumbai, she became the face of Fortis Hosiptals' newly-launched cancer institute.

Looking stunning in an off-shoulder grey dress, Ray may have seemed a tad out of place among the formally dressed and serious-looking doctors and corporate honchos. But the confident actress walked past a frenzy of flashlights and camerapersons to the dais and addressed the media: "I am Lisa Ray," she said, "And I am a cancer survivor."


Image: Lisa Ray at the launch of a Fortis Cancer Institute in Mulund, Mumbai
Photographs: Hitesh Harisinghani
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'This is a new life, a rebirth'

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From being a model and starlet, Lisa Ray has become an unlikely spokesperson for the battle against cancer. Her blog -- The Yellow Diaries -- has documented the phases she's been through, the tone of her writing moving from sombre and reflective to funny and downright cheeky.

Ray herself likes to see her recovery -- in April this year she announced she was cancer-free, following a stem cell transplant -- as a rebirth.

"I can't say I have 'returned' to my life. "This is a new life, a rebirth," she says.

In an earlier interview, Ray has confessed that in some ways her being affected by cancer had been a gift. "It has given me a unique opportunity to stop, pause and to pretty much relish my life," she has said.

Speaking with us today, she stresses on the need to 'take it easy'.

The actress has described the moment when she was told about her illness as a 'fade to black from the inside' and that time of her life as being 'regular and busy'.

"I used to experience a lot of fatigue. Since I travelled a lot, I often dismissed it as jetlag and carried on. It was only when someone insisted that I go for a check-up that I discovered my condition," she remembers.

"Today I see a lot of urban Indians pushing themselves beyond the point of exhaustion. So when I hear about all the success stories emerging from India, I wonder at what cost."

Ray, who walked the red carpet at the Toronto International Film Festival last year for her film Cooking With Stella and spoke about her disease there, says it was a conscious decision to come out in the open.


Image: Lisa poses in the Hollywood area of Los Angeles
Photographs: Gus Ruelas/Reuters
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'You don't get support till you ask for it'

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"I had three choices at the time," she says. "One was not to attend, the second was to lie about my appearance (since I was on steroids and had put on weight) or to come clean. I am glad I chose the last."

Ray speaking out about multiple myeloma also meant putting her career at risk -- her future producers will have to shell out more on insurance, should they choose to work with her. It would mean losing out on projects.

She mentioned this earlier and pointed it out as one of the reasons why many from her profession choose to keep silent about major illnesses.

By disclosing the truth and sharing her experiences, especially on her blog, Ray opened floodgates of support.

This, she points out, has been the most crucial stage in her yearlong battle. "You don't get support till you ask for it. In sharing my experiences, I discovered a great sense of connection. The more you are open about it and the more you talk about it, the greater are the chances that you will find the human connect that is very crucial."

Each of her blog entries has received hundreds of comments -- most of them are words of encouragement as she insists, "There is no use of sympathy. No one has grown up without problems. The only way out is to have the right attitude and tackle the problem head on."

Someone in the crowd asks her if she's ever asked herself 'Why me?' and Ray tells him of Arthur Ashe, the tennis player who was diagnosed with AIDS after he received infected blood from a transfusion in 1983.

"He said when you ask yourself why you of all people were chosen to undergo the pain and the trauma, you also need to ask yourself why God chose to give you all the happiness you received."

(Ashe is said to have wrote this to a fan who asked him why God had selected him to have 'such a bad disease': "The world over, 50 million children start playing tennis, 5 million learn to play tennis, 500,000 learn professional tennis, 50,000 come to the circuit, 5000 reach the grand slam, 50 reach Wimbledon, 4 to semi final, 2 to the finals, when I was holding a cup I never asked God, 'Why me?'")


Image: Lisa endorses a watch brand during a promotional campaign in Kolkata
Photographs: Jayanta Shaw/Reuters
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'Love is an action, not a feeling'

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Cancer is a human experience," Lisa Ray says, "And it is important to share it. You need to be self aware and overcome fear. For some, this is the greatest battle of their lives and it cannot be fought in isolation."

During yet another interview, when Ray was asked what is it she learnt from this episode in her life, she replied after some thought that she was 'still processing' her learnings.

In her last blog entry, Ray seems to have found her answer:

She writes: "You know what else cancer taught me? Love is an action. It's not a feeling. And its not love until there's evidence of action. So I've been very busy, loving my friends. Sometimes that means cooking basil pesto salmon, or staying on the phone an extra 15 minutes or it means travelling to Nelson.

Or it means practising compassion.

Both with another and with myself."

As she looks at you, Lisa Ray's green eyes, that perhaps once stared at you from a poster on your bedroom wall seem to take on a life of their own. They're no longer seductive as you remember them. You spot a hint of perspiration on her right shoulder, then a strand of white hair in a crop that's just about growing back.

Even as you try hard to bring back the image of a bombshell in a red swimsuit, you realise that myeloma has made her more human than ever.

A few minutes later, she gets up -- she's been on her feet for at least a few hours now, patiently hearing out everyone, answering questions and sharing laughter.

The memory of her eyes still lingering, Lisa Ray looks at you and smiles.

And then she is gone.


Image: Lisa arrives for the world premiere of 'Water' at the 30th Toronto International Festival
Photographs: Mike Cassese/Reuters
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