Lisa Ray had never heard of multiple myeloma before she was diagnosed with it.

“I think that something was brewing for a few years before I was actually diagnosed,” says the actress and former host of Top Chef Canada. “My body kept sending me signals and messages until I had no choice but to listen.”  

Working as a model and actress in Canada and abroad, Ray was used to being busy and getting sick was never part of her schedule.  She often felt fatigued, but she had trained herself to persevere until one day, during a yoga retreat in India, Ray felt so exhausted that she couldn’t get off her mat. It was then that she decided to fly home and see a doctor.  Tests revealed that she had multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells that affects one in 159 Canadian women.

How she healed

When Ray was diagnosed on June 23, 2009, she did not react with rage or tears. “I’m an actress, believe me, I can be dramatic. Not just then though,” she wrote on her blog. “For me, it was a relief to hear what was wrong. The plasma cells in my bone marrow were rampaging, multiplying, squeezing out the red blood cells and it was time to begin doing something about it.”

“It became something to look forward to in dark periods and a way of connecting with a global community,”

That fall, Ray was put on an aggressive cocktail of chemotherapy and steroids for four months. Having worked in Bollywood and starred in the Oscar-nominated film Water, Ray was used to the limelight, but after suffering the side effects from treatment, the actress felt alienated.

“The initial inclination is just to hide, to put your head down and just go through it quietly and hope that you come out the other end, but I don’t think that that’s necessarily healthy,” says Ray, who lost her brown curly hair and gained approximately 40 pounds on her road to recovery.

In an attempt to process what she was going through, Ray publically documented her cancer journey on her blog, “Yellow Diaries” — and received an overwhelming response.

“It became something to look forward to in dark periods and a way of connecting with a global community,” she says, adding that seeking support is an important part of the healing process.  

Ray also investigated multiple forms of healing, including dietary changes and meditation. She says that becoming more in tune with her body, how it works and what worked to heal it, was empowering.  “I learned to take responsibility for my health,” says Ray.

Stem cell research creates hope for patients

Following her chemotherapy, Ray received a stem cell transplant — a procedure that she says allowed her to be “reborn on a physical level” and left her with a curiosity about this field of medicine.

Ray visited the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine to learn more and witnessed the potential of stem cells, convincing her that this research could save lives.
Stem cells are cells that are found in tissues such as the brain, blood, and bone marrow. The ability for these cells to rebuild and replace damaged tissues, such as skin or muscle, has made them the focus of regenerative medicine. Research has shown that stem cells can be used to not only repair damaged tissue, but can even regenerate the organ in its entirety.

“It’s going to hold a lot of hope for people” says Ray, now a stem cell advocate and spokesperson, “I think the future lies in stem cells.”
As for her own future, Ray says she is adjusting to a new normal. Though multiple myeloma is incurable and she relapsed in 2013, she is now in remission and says she is taking better care of herself than ever before.  

In her Toronto home, Ray has a pillow that reads, “Life is good,” and according to her, it is as simple as that. “I am probably the healthiest I’ve ever been in my life, except for that little thing called multiple myeloma,” she says.

Battling blood cancer has not only changed Ray’s approach to life, but also her approach to work. “It has changed the flavour of what I do, but in a very positive way,” she says. Since her diagnosis, Ray has used her celebrity status to speak out about multiple myeloma in documentaries, charity campaigns, and even designed a signature sari line with a portion of proceeds going to cancer-related charities.

Five years after her diagnosis, Rays says that she now chooses projects — both in her personal and professional life — that align with her values and that make her happy. “I’m very aware of time and what I want to do with that time,” she says. “Every moment counts.”