She first gained fame when she appeared in a Bombay Dyeing commercial. Since then, Lisa Ray has made a career for herself in modelling and films, both commercial and independent. Now though, she is better known for having publicly chronicled her struggle with Multiple Myeloma [MM], a type of blood cancer, on her blog.
Breaking the taboo that surrounds discussing cancer publicly, she no longer feels the need to keep up any image and treasures authenticity. As a result of her treatment and changes in her diet and lifestyle, the cancer in now in remission. Meanwhile, she has successfully resumed her media career and now also finds time to support several philanthropic campaigns. Here are excerpts from our interview with this confident, brave and inspiring woman.
Your father is Bengali and mother is Polish, you grew up in Canada, married a man of Lebanese descent, and spent time in London—how does the world look like to a person who has had so many cultural influences?
Lisa Ray: I feel blessed. To be honest, my mixed blood and diverse cultural references caused a lot of confusion and identity issues when I was younger. However, today I understand that my differences are my strength. I have unique experiences and a unique view of the world. I am very open and accepting and curious about the world to this day. I was a global citizen even before there was such a concept. However, at my core, I am very Indian. I came to Mumbai when I was 16—it was ‘Bombay’ then—and I spent more than a decade in India, so a lot of my cultural references are still Indian. I call myself a global Indian.
What made you write the “The Yellow Diaries”? Where did you find the strength to be open and vulnerable like any other common man or woman?
Lisa Ray: The Yellow Diaries started from a simple impulse to try to decode and process my Cancer Journey. I wrote to understand. It was like journalling, except I chose to upload those words onto a blog. I can’t explain exactly what motivated me to start a blog—but I can tell you that I started writing when I was on steroids and sleepless at night. Words have always been important to me, and using them to express what I was going through helped me connect with my vulnerability and the truth of the moment. When I was facing my mortality, it made me realise how much I value truth and authenticity and it released me from the efforts of maintaining an ‘image’ for the media. I simply wanted to share a very human experience and I’m fortunate that people supported me through it. I guess Cancer made me brave.
Writing is known to be therapeutic. Do you think blogging about your disease contributed to your healing?
Lisa Ray: I think my healing journey involves so many aspects of my life today, from food and nourishment to lifestyle changes to detoxifying techniques to healing old emotional and mental wounds to meditation—but the courage to begin to make those changes in my life started with blogging. It also helped me connect with others. I will never forget the full hearted support I got from India. I think that blogging also helped to challenge the fear factor around cancer. There’s a taboo in India—and to a lesser extent abroad—about discussing a serious disease openly. I couldn’t understand why? Keeping it a secret for the first two months of my treatment was difficult and painful and it made me think about other cancer patients who are suffering in silence. Writing the blog helped challenge this cultural taboo.
Earlier you were recognised mainly for your breathtaking beauty but now you’re known for your inner strength and the media highlight your healing from MM. How do you relate to this difference?
Lisa Ray: While I have a full life out of the spotlight, I have also spent a lot of my life in the public eye and it’s rewarding to be portrayed in a way that is closer to who I am in real life. Sometimes we become victims of our media image, and that happened to me in the first phase of my career. For instance, I was interested in performing in alternative, serious films, but at that point I was only offered roles in mainstream Bollywood films. This was in the 90s when the industry was very different. I have many interests and it was hard to be perceived in a one dimensional way—especially since I fell into this profession by accident. The other shift which came about after getting diagnosed was that I realised I could finally use the media to highlight a cause that is vital and important to me, and not just promote something which is important to others.
My priorities have completely changed for the better. Today my actions and priorities are in line with my values and my heart’s desire
In your journey towards remission, did you feel weak at times? How did you deal with your weak moments? Did you ever contemplate giving up?
Lisa Ray: Of course I felt weak and even depressed, but never hopeless. After getting diagnosed, something was unlocked in me, an unlimited potential for hope. But during my weak moments, I turned to humour, writing, meditation and contemplation. I truly believed that there was a reason for my disease, that it was connected with emotional and mental traumas and that I could heal—though it would not be easy.
What role does the mind play in healing? To what extent did your attitude and your thoughts help you in your tryst with MM?
Lisa Ray: I believe the mind plays a huge role in healing. Holistic medicine, ayurveda and even traditional western medicine draws a strong connection between the mind, body and spirit in health and healing.
Before you got diagnosed, you had been practising yoga and meditation for several years; you were also a seeker of spiritual traditions. Did that help in your healing?
Lisa Ray: Without a doubt, my yoga and meditation practice helped me through my cancer treatment. What’s interesting is you practise and you practise more, but in order to reap the benefits, you need to be in a crisis. For instance, I think my relationship to fear and control over fear was different because of my meditation. I was able to manage my anxiety much better due to my yoga practice.
Tell us something about your term “cancer graduate”—what made you think of yourself as a graduate than a survivor?
Lisa Ray: I’d like to point out a crucial fact about MM, the blood cancer I am living with: it is considered incurable. There are many new treatments and the prognosis is looking increasingly bright but the fact remains that I am living WITH the cancer. It is under control due to medication and lifestyle and diet changes I have made. In fact, I relapsed in early 2013 and ended up attending a three week Life Transformation programme at a holistic healing centre called The Hippocrates Health Institute, where I started applying healing techniques like juicing and releasing emotional blocks. Fortunately, due to my medication and these changes, I went back into remission after a few months. That’s why I call myself a ‘graduate’, since it’s an ongoing learning process. I’d also like to share that I’m participating in a clinical trial right now, which is very promising and has the potential to cure. I believe with my heart I will be cured and heal completely, but I’d like to emphasise that I’m living with this condition at the moment.
Every triumph and misstep has made me who I am today
How have your priorities evolved from the pre-diagnosis time? What excites Lisa Ray now?
Lisa Ray: My priorities have completely changed for the better. Today my actions and priorities are in line with my values and my heart’s desire. Health, wellness, writing, giving back and spending quality time both with myself and with my family are activities for which I never had time before. I still love acting and being in front of the camera; however today whatever I do is rooted in intention and values. I’m doing a lot of writing and painting and discovering full expression in other art forms. I’m planning on spending half my year in India and the other half in Canada. I also practise gratitude and try my best to focus on what I have and not on what I don’t. Travel is also still important, but with balance. I led a crazy, unbalanced life for so many years that it is taking time to heal from that lifestyle.
Has life changed after being married? If yes, how?
Lisa Ray: I have a soul mate and a partner-in-crime to share adventures with. We have so many common dreams and I’m so excited to make our dreams come true.
Lastly, if you could, would you change anything about your past? What and why?
Lisa Ray: Not a thing. Every triumph and misstep has made me who I am today. And a big part of healing is acceptance—because life is a gift.