Culture

How Lisa Ray discovered the true meaning of wellness while battling an incurable cancer

Self-love is essential

I was in Tbilisi, Georgia, this summer when Goga, my personal trainer, asked me to translate ‘cancer’ by typing it into an app on his phone. We had been carrying on conversations in halting English between sets and I had just jokingly told him to take it easy on me—after all, I have “the cancer”. He looked
at his phone, frowned. “This not good word.” He asked me to type it again, thinking I had made a mistake. Happy for a longer break between tricep dips, I took my time, punching in C-A-N-C-E-R slowly. When the Georgian word popped up, Goga was still confused. “No. This word means you die.”

Goga’s reaction isn’t uncommon, but it made me realise that everyone has an idea of what cancer is—of what illness looks like. But what about health? I’m an emissary from that country where things often don’t turn out the way you hope, and I’ve not only survived, but I’m thriving while living with an incurable disease. So, where do I belong: to the well or the unwell? And what does wellness even mean?

When I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2009, I was a covert type A, who scoffed at fevers and the concept of ‘slowing down’, and if someone had told me I needed to love myself more, I would have kicked over their quinoa bowl. But on a deeper level, I always knew something was not right. When I was diagnosed, I wrote, “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.”

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I wrote about my diagnosis, announced it from the red carpet at the Toronto International Film Festival, raised money and awareness for my ‘orphan’ cancer, went through a stem cell transplant and was declared in complete remission. But I was still busy, except not with the business of healing Lisa. I was making the disease a mission—not me.

My innate rebelliousness came in handy when I was handed the prognosis: multiple myeloma is incurable and considered fatal. That, along with my visceral reaction to overwhelming amounts of unsolicited advice, helped me look inside. Fortunately, I could draw from my meditation practice. And writing helped me clarify my confusion. Slowly, as my body was weakened by the treatment, my expectations for myself and my appearance began to loosen, until I discovered that those expectations were not my own, but internalised from the world. Slowly, I crossed over to the idea that the journey to wellness is a journey of owning yourself, instead of expecting someone else to fix you.

When I relapsed in 2012, right after my wedding, I realised there was yet another lesson, yet unlearned. Yes, I was rattled, but I couldn’t let fear of the disease run my life. I decided to get curious about what wellness and healing really meant for me.

While I followed my oncologist’s prescriptions and readied myself for a second stem cell transplant, I also dedicated myself to healing. I had been studying yoga and meditation when I was first diagnosed, but now I threw myself into everything in the complementary realm— Ayurveda, juicing, energy healing, fasting, drum circles, cranio-sacral therapy, acupuncture, ego dissolution through dance movement therapy, and nutrition (like a three-week life transformation programme at Hippocrates Health Institute, USA, that meant consuming copious amounts of wheat grass and sprouts, while learning about the immune system). Certainly, the raw food diet helped (I’m no longer on it), natural supplements helped (I’m no longer taking all of them), the hours of meditation and visualisation and yoga too (I manage a few minutes of meditation every day and my yoga practice is quite erratic). As my perfectionist tendencies fell away, I learned to listen to my body and my bones. And I gratefully entered my second complete remission in the spring of 2012, intending to stay healthy and wondering what wellness would look like for me now. 

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Here’s what I learned: wellness is a lived experience, and my wellness will look different from yours. For myself, I have understood it by going to the places that terrify me. Sometimes, when it doesn’t feel like your fabric is going to hold, that’s when it all makes sense.

Wellness means redefining success. As a born introvert, I’ve pushed against my innate nature for so many years, making myself sick in the process. I’m sensitive, so ridding myself of toxic relationships, cutting down on socialising, and putting my needs at the centre of my experience, works for me. All the bothersome stuff, like what you ‘should’ do, drops away when you are dealing with your mortality anyway. Dedicating myself to words, intimacy and nature, reclaiming my right to rest and scheduling retreats, is not a luxury but a necessity. When the guidance shifts from outside yourself to the soft-but-boss voice inside, signalling you that you are an active participant in your wellness, that’s a revolution.

The most subversive thing you can do today is to reclaim your wellness, which by the way, doesn’t always translate into a relaxed, quiet version of yourself. Wellness is disruptive. I don’t think of myself as a semi-success on the health spectrum because I’m living with a disease, but a gundi of good health, a wild woman of wellness, the CEO of SLA (Save Lisa’s Ass).

And most importantly: wellness does not mean you will not get ill. It does not mean you will not deal with all sorts of health issues. You will. But once you stop being a stranger to yourself, you will be equipped to face the challenges that come. Like a super hero. Like a super soul.

Featured photograph: Farrokh Chothia