Lisa Ray tugs the black T-shirt off her right shoulder to reveal a bandage covering a quarter-sized hole in her chest that she's nicknamed her "port-a-potty."
The correct medical term for the incision in Ms. Ray's upper chest wall is actually a "port-a-cath," and the gorgeous Toronto-born actress recently had it done at Princess Margaret Hospital to reduce the pain of the weekly chemotherapy she is taking to combat a rare, incurable form of blood cancer called multiple myeloma.
"I was getting really challenged by all the needles," said the 37-year-old star of films such as the Academy Award-nominated Water, and the upcoming Cooking With Stella , which debuts at the Toronto International Film Festival next week. "I have really bad veins, and I would get the nurses to sing, do anything, to distract me, because it's just impossible to get anything out of my veins. They just collapse. The catheter provides direct access to a primary vein. It's such a relief not having to be poked all the time."
Ms. Ray has revealed to The Globe and Mail that she's been privately fighting the aggressive cancer, which destroys red blood cells. During an exclusive interview from the courtyard of her condo in the Beaches, Ms. Ray was remarkably upbeat when describing the June 23 diagnosis of a disease that afflicts roughly 6,000 Canadians, with numbers growing. According to Canadian Cancer Statistics, 2,100 new cases of myeloma were estimated for 2008, with 1,350 deaths.
The Etobicoke, Ont., native, who is of Polish and Bengali descent, has begun chronicling her experience on a blog she calls The Yellow Diaries that has already garnered responses from around the world. "For me, it was a relief to hear what was wrong," she wrote. "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. I was also tired of being tired all the time. So when I … got the news, I didn't react, and I didn't cry. I'm an actress, believe me, I can be dramatic. Not just then, though."
She knows that when she walks the red carpet at the film festival for Dilip Mehta's new comedy, Cooking With Stella, on Sept. 16, fans may take note of her slightly bloated face and figure (due to steroids), and she said she decided to go public with her battle to help build awareness of a rare form of cancer few people know much about.
"I believe, statistically, if you were diagnosed with multiple myeloma 10 years ago, even five years ago, you would be given a three-year survival rate, which is really scary. But today, I could live for 20 years," said Ms. Ray.
"What's interesting about this particular form of cancer is that there is a growing toolbox of drugs, such as Velcade and Revlimid, that are gaining approval sooner and sooner. Today it's treated as almost a condition you can live with - incurable, but not necessarily fatal."
Despite her aggressive treatment, Ms. Ray looks radiant, but tired. The famous cat eyes - a shocking bottle green - sparkle, but are a little glassy. The chemo drains her, the workaholic admitted, but has done nothing to dent her resolve to best a disease that snuck up on her, leaving her excruciatingly tired, pale, and finally so weak she required a blood transfusion. After that, tests done in Toronto determined that she had myeloma. Her four-month-long cycle of treatments started in early July, and will finish at the end of October. Then she will undergo a stem-cell transplant. After that, she is banking on full remission.
Until this week, Ms. Ray has stayed quiet about her condition, telling only family and a few close friends. Some had advised her not to go public for fear of hurting her career. But as TIFF loomed - and she grappled with the weird reality of juggling chemo treatments with glitzy, red carpet appearances to promote Cooking With Stella and her other film, Peter Stebbings's Defendor - she decided it was time to speak out.
"I really am a bit of a freak," said Ms. Ray, noting that this type of cancer usually hits people who are over 70. "I have what is a relatively unsexy cancer because most members of our club are much older than I. But my age makes me a very intriguing case, in a way. There's greater potential to try out stronger and newer drugs because my system can handle it better than an older body. So I'm like a guinea pig," she said with a self-deprecating laugh and toss of her dark hair.
"I'm aiming for full remission," she blogged this week. "That's my claim and I'm plowing it into the mountaintop. Though I'm not sure why I keep mixing up 'remission' with 'transmission' and 'transgression.' There's a whole new lingo you have to learn when you get this disease. Maybe that will get clearer down the line."
A nomad who studied drama in London before landing acting roles that took her around the world, Ms. Ray has put down roots in Toronto - a decision she initially made to be closer to her dad after the death of her mom (she's an only child) a few months ago. On her return to her hometown, Ms. Ray's partner (a man named Mark who works in Toronto's financial sector) persuaded her to slow down long enough to get some full-scale blood work, which was followed by a gruelling bone-marrow test. "He almost fainted three times," she noted, "which shocked me because he's a brave bugger."
Treatment kicked off July 2. And, thanks to the steroids, she said, she's ravenous all the time. "I've bloated to about three times my usual size," said Ms. Ray, who confesses in her blog she's currently obsessed with "the pepperettes at Meat on the Beach. I had a Gollum-worthy breakdown at the counter recently when I found out they haven't restocked.
"In retrospect there were signs, but I didn't pay attention to them," Ms. Ray said ruefully. "Sure I was tired all the time. But I figured, who isn't? This illness has brought to light the pressure we have in society to keep going and going, overriding things that are trying to tell us to stop and slow down."
For now, Ms. Ray's career is on temporary hiatus. She will strut the red carpet with her Cooking With Stella co-stars Don McKellar and Seema Biswas next Wednesday night. But recently, she's stopped meeting with directors and reading scripts. Her plan for the remainder of the year, she adds, is to focus on getting better.
"I have been keeping a punishingly normal schedule, even during treatments," blogged Ms. Ray, who left the TIFF press conference in early August to scoot up to Princess Margaret for another round of chemo. "It's the covert Type-A in me. My years of drama school, and the ability to manufacture an alternate reality for a role, have come in handy. But I knew I wasn't trusting the situation. I was treating my battle like it's inconvenient. Managing the stage like a tyrannical Bollywood choreographer," she added. "But I've recognized I need to ask for help and support. They say, name it. Then you can recognize it. Then deal with it."
When she resumes acting, she predicted that she'll choose a comedy. "Something frothy and light," she chuckled. "I think I deserve that."
WHAT IS MYELOMA?
Multiple myeloma and myeloma refer to the same thing: a cancer of the plasma cells. Plasma cells are found in the bone marrow, the tissue in the hollow area within the bones. Because plasma cells are also found in the blood, myeloma is referred to as a hematologic or blood cancer. It may also be referred to as plasma cell myeloma. The word "multiple" is often used because the malignant cells usually affect multiple areas of the bone marrow.
The early stages of myeloma may produce no symptoms. Most people first go to their doctor because of vague problems that can be difficult to diagnose, such as fatigue, recurrent infections (cold sores), or back pain. Other symptoms include tiredness (accompanied by thirst, frequent urination, nausea, or muscle weakness) and kidney problems.
The average age at diagnosis is 62 for men and 61 for women, and only 4 per cent of cases are diagnosed in people under 45.
Radiotherapy, chemotherapy, steroids, stem-cell transplantation, thalidomide, bortezomib (Velcade), lenalidomide (Revlimid). Treatments or drugs are commonly used in different combinations, such as thalidomide and a high dose of steroids or melphalan and prednisone. In addition, new treatments are becoming available.