'I am not a data point': Actor and author Lisa Ray on how she defied her cancer diagnosis

The artiste, who got diagnosed with multiple myleloma in 2009, recalls how she was given only five years to live post a rare health diagnosis


Somya Mehta

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“Cancer is one of those things that you somehow think will never hit you. But when it actually affects you personally, it hits deep,” says the actor.
“Cancer is one of those things that you somehow think will never hit you. But when it actually affects you personally, it hits deep,” says the actor.

Published: Fri 27 Oct 2023, 7:31 PM

Last updated: Fri 27 Oct 2023, 7:39 PM

In 2009, she was diagnosed with a condition called multiple myeloma. Hardly able to even pronounce it, she found her life transformed overnight as the news of a life-threatening disease hit home. Multiple myeloma, a rare type of cancer, is a malignancy of the plasma bone marrow, typically affecting people in their 60s. So, having been diagnosed with it at a relatively early age of 37, Lisa Ray presented a unique case. “Cancer is one of those things that you somehow think will never hit you. But when it actually affects you personally, it hits deep,” says Lisa, who recently gave a keynote speech at the Pink Warriors event in Dubai, hosted by HEALTH Magazine, bringing together a network of prominent healthcare professionals from leading government and private organisations in the UAE to spread awareness around Breast Cancer.

She recently gave a keynote speech at the Pink Warriors event in Dubai
She recently gave a keynote speech at the Pink Warriors event in Dubai

At the time of her diagnosis, the Canadian-Indian actor and model was at the zenith of her career. Lisa, who made her acting debut in the acclaimed Indian film Kasoor in 2001, gained recognition for her work in Indian cinema, particularly in Bollywood and independent films. “But, of course, I was ignoring a lot of what my body was telling me,” she opens up. “Often, these are the messages absorbed from society, especially as a woman. We see that we have to work harder, manage our careers, homes, and everything, with a smile. What often falls far down the list of priorities is our personal health and well-being, and I certainly suffered for it,” says Lisa, also known for her powerful performance in the highly acclaimed film Water (2005), directed by Deepa Mehta, which went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Soon after her diagnosis, the actor received a lot of well-meaning advice from people around her, saying, ‘Whatever you do, don't talk about it openly. Just keep it a secret’. “I understood that this advice was coming from a good place,” she recalls. “Within the South Asian community, we tend not to speak openly about misfortune and serious illness. There seems to be a taboo around it. But I wanted to ask, why should I feel a sense of shame about something, specifically a cancer diagnosis that affects so many people?”

This is when Lisa turned towards the breast cancer movement for inspiration. “It was a beautiful case study of how raising awareness has transformed outcomes because awareness is power,” says Lisa. “It has brought breast cancer to the mainstream and put women's health, historically not spoken about openly, at the centre stage. Along with that, research and funding have increased, and we get to celebrate survivors and grieve together as a community.”

Lisa was among the first celebrities from the South Asian community to openly discuss her diagnosis in public. “I actually did it on the red carpet of the Toronto International Film Festival, making it as public as possible,” she adds. “I was already going through treatments, and one of my protocols included steroids, which, as anyone who has taken them knows, can affect your mental state. I was also about 40 pounds overweight, over my normal weight.”

Leading a public life as a celebrity is a double-edged sword. While a lot of good comes with it, one can never be fully detached from the intense scrutiny and constant judgement that fame brings along. “Stepping onto the red carpet, which is often a place where women feel scrutinised and criticised, I realised that, in my new body, which I was embracing because it saved my life, this was a powerful opportunity to redirect the conversation,” says Lisa.

As the actor points out, normally, one would imagine the red carpet as more of a place to discuss material topics rather than a place of meaningful conversation. But it was the breast cancer movement that inspired Lisa to seize the moment and “make it about something much larger than myself,” the actor recounts. “Tapping into the power of community and public awareness was transformative for me. I believe it changed my personal outcomes and played a significant role in why I’m standing here today. The collective power of community and having a mission has been instrumental.”

Going public with the diagnosis finally gave people a chance to see the real her, ‘the person behind the image’, says the actor. “It was the least self-conscious I had ever felt, I was fully present in my body. Prior to that, I had always been uncomfortable on the red carpet. For years, I had struggled with this persona, and people seemed to only connect with that. There was so much more of myself I wanted to share.”

For Lisa, cancer became a powerful vehicle for her to own her authenticity. “My cancer buddy advised me not to wait for my beautiful Indian hair to fall out in clumps in the shower. Instead, she suggested I take control by shaving it off. This decision empowered me and spared me the pain of waiting through that process,” the actor recalls. “Something truly magical happens when you're diagnosed with a very serious cancer. Your entire perspective shifts, and many of the smaller, pettier concerns just seem to dissolve. When you focus on something that’s larger than yourself, you actually end up finding your purpose,” she adds.

Cancer is never easy, regardless of the type. However, discovering a life of purpose beyond one’s personal struggles can lead to significant strength and resilience. The power of community, raising our voices, inspiring others, and collaborating closely with medical experts has the potential to bring about meaningful change, as is witnessed in the numerous health campaigns that seek to raise awareness as part of ‘Pinktober’. “Witnessing the transformative impact of the breast cancer movement inspired my belief that we could achieve similar outcomes for multiple myeloma, an often overlooked and underexposed ‘orphan cancer,’” says Lisa, who, in addition to her career in the entertainment world, has been an active voice in spreading awareness around women’s health. “It stands as a powerful testament to the ability of the community to drive meaningful change.”

Still from 'Four More Shots Please!'
Still from 'Four More Shots Please!'

On the work front, Lisa was last seen in the Indian web series Four More Shots Please! which primarily focuses on the lives, friendships, and adventures of four young women living in Mumbai. When asked about her future showbiz plans, she responds, “Nothing as of now, I am enjoying my time in Dubai.” The actor, who relocated to the city last year with her twins and husband, says the project would have to be “pretty special” to grab her attention. “Never say never, I'm always open to work but Four More Shots Please! set the bar really high. So, I’ll wait for the right opportunity.”


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