“I’m an accidental actress, model, nomad and covert activist.”
The only child of a Polish mother and Bengali Indian father, Lisa was raised in Etobicoke, Ontario. She was named one of the top-10 most beautiful Indian women of the millennium.
You may recognize her from the Indian/Canadian film Bollywood/Hollywood, or as the acclaimed lead in the 2005 Oscar-nominated film Water. In 2009, Lisa was diagnosed with the rare blood disease multiple myeloma, just a few months after the passing of her mom. In 2010 she celebrated her cancer-free diagnosis following a stem cell transplant.
BARBARA Lisa, I’ve been absolutely inspired by your openness and humbled by your strength in how you’ve shared your journey. Has this been therapeutic for you?
LISA Being transparent and open about my experience with multiple myeloma served – and still serves – many
different purposes in my life. Going through the shock of being diagnosed with cancer, the stigma that comes with it and the fear of this incurable bone marrow blood cancer actually made me wonder: “What did I do wrong to get this?” But it didn’t occur to me to keep it a secret.
I had never even heard of multiple myeloma until I was diagnosed. When I delved deeper into it, I thought, “Wow, this is a fascinating cancer.” On one hand, it’s incurable and fatal, yet on the other hand, there’s a lot of optimism because of the breakthroughs, new protocols and drug therapies that’s changed the prognosis in the last five years. We’ve already extended our lifespan prognosis from three to five years.
There’s a realistic chance that this can turn from fatal, to a manageable or chronic condition. And then beyond that, it’s just a matter of steps to a cure. This is why I wanted my journey to be public; the attention is a benefit. It’s a chance to change things dramatically, to change people’s lives.
B There’s been a lot of controversy on stem cell use.
L The information on stem cell research is fascinating. Unfortunately, misinformation and fear-mongering from agenda-driven politics makes some people think it may be taboo. As a spokesperson for multiple myeloma, I was able to visit the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine, and toured the research labs with Dr. Gordon Keller, one of the foremost stem cell researchers in the world. He exposed me to the potential of stem cell regenerative medicine and what it means in changing the future of debilitating disease – it is fascinating and mind boggling at the same time. This is the next big leap in medicine. Harnessing the power of stem cells has vast applications, for multiple myeloma as well as other conditions including diabetes, nerve regeneration, spinal cord injuries, and the heart – actually recreating organs in the lab.
I’m lucky that I qualified for the stem cell transplant. It’s not a standard protocol. Not all patients qualify. I was young and healthy prior to diagnosis, which made me a good candidate to harvest my own stem cells.
B Looking back now and seeing that your major symptom was fatigue, how did this lead to your diagnosis?
L On some level I actually had adapted to my fatigue.
I had pushed myself to a point where my red blood cell count was so low, I had an emergency transfusion.
The doctor was shocked; he couldn’t believe I was still standing. Why didn’t I get medical attention before that? Because like many, I trained myself to override my body’s natural signals. I just kept going. I was taught to: ‘Get up and don’t whine!’ But then when I couldn’t get up after yoga, sometimes laying on the floor for over an hour, I realized something was wrong. My yoga practice provided the important message: “Tune in to your body; it knows best.”
B How do you tune in to your body now?
L A combination of things. I’ve been a yoga practitioner for 12 years; about four years ago I started Moksha yoga, done in a hot room. Now I put my practice into practise. Yoga’s holistic approach brings mind, body and spirit together. The detoxifying benefits of Moksha yoga helped my body heal. On a spiritual level, it helped me access my inner being to assist my healing journey. Now I call myself a ‘cancer graduate,’ a term I borrowed from a dear friend. It completely empowered me when I heard it. I believe in the power of words and intention and these words provide a powerful intention.
B Are you still listening?
L I’m still recalibrating my attitude. It’s about breaking old patterns and looking at oneself differently. There’s such an emphasis in our society on always ‘doing.’ I’m finding my path to ‘balance.’ It’s essential.
It’s a matter of realigning everything. I made a list of my core values. Whatever I do professionally and personally must align with them. With every decision, I ask: “Is this going to serve me? Will it serve my relationships, and my health? And, is it fun?” This deliberate way of thinking was key in my decision to open a Moksha yoga studio in Brampton. I believe in the power of this yoga practice and want to share it with everyone.
B You’ve developed such strength.
L I don’t know that I’m so strong, maybe stubborn with an inexplicable air of optimism that everything is as it should be; that there is a ‘rightness’ to the universe. Even going through pain has a reason. Aside from all that, sure, it’s been a crappy time. So then you say, “I’m going through a crappy time.” Who doesn’t? Coming out the other side, I realize the blessing of the incredible support I’ve had. Now I get to pay it forward. My ‘celebrity persona’ now serves a greater purpose as a spokesperson. This is a part of my evolution and self-actualization.
My coping mechanism is to focus on positive aspects, the hope and the optimism. Even though I’m in remission, my condition is incurable. The work is not yet done. That’s why I beat the multiple myeloma drum, it is ultimately in my best interest. The next big breakthrough could save my life. What happens next? There’s a chance I’ll relapse.
B Can you still have stem cell transplants?
L I’ve banked an extra bag; it’s in a deep freeze, so absolutely. But this is a complex disease so there will be a new drug regimen, a different protocol, because the body becomes resistant. That’s what’s so essential about awareness programs to generate enough funding for the next big research breakthrough.
What’s eye-opening is the inequitable access to these cutting edge treatments across Canada. Imagine being diagnosed, not only with cancer, but with the complex, incurable, ultimately fatal multiple myeloma. And your medical specialist says, “We believe this is the best, most aggressive treatment. But, sorry, it’s not available in our province.” New drug protocols are approved provincially; there can be a wide disparity across the country. It boggles my mind that someone can be denied the most effective treatment. They’re already in a fragile, vulnerable state. If it’s not covered, who can afford out-of-province treatment at $10,000 a month?
B In your blog, The Yellow Diaries, the intimate details of your emotional and physical journey express your writing talent. When do you plan to complete your book?
L It’s an essential part of my ongoing healing journey. My post-grad, cancer doctorate. (Lisa laughs joyfully) The book is the ripple that flows from the experience. There’s no completion date yet.
B Some things I love from The Yellow Diaries: the name, and witnessing the protocol of your own rebirth.
L Ah, yes. Yellow, the colour of the third chakra, is the seat of the willpower; that’s the inspiration. Witnessing my own rebirth was a coping mechanism and the expression of the sheer magnitude of what I was
experiencing at the time. My protocol became the diaries, the vehicle to archive my authentic reactions and inspirations in the moment. The rebirthing was important imagery to help me through my experience – not easy and frightening on many levels. I would focus my attention on my ideas. What a privilege to experience a rebirth in the same lifetime, like a big reboot for my system.
Lisa, was a model first, and was ‘discovered’ at a photo shoot
that began her acting career.
B What’s next for Lisa?
L I feel the purpose of life is to be happy. It sounds
simple, but it doesn’t always happen. I have dark
moments and difficult days like anyone. It’s at those times I concentrate on ‘the light.’ I’d like to have a little downtime now at my refuge in Nelson, BC, and spend time writing. I love nurturing my relationships. In the past this suffered because of my work and travel schedule, but I’ve reprioritized. I’m grateful to be given this second chance at life so I’m going to make the most of it, in the way that it makes sense to me.
B Your new projects after this two year sabbatical?
L I just returned from filming in India; a role that is completely different for me, a lot of work but a lot of fun. I love doing diverse projects that deliver a deep message; stories considered left of centre or of empowerment, that’s why I accepted the role in Water. It’s a natural extension of my belief system. This makes sense of the movie business for me. I don’t have anything against blockbusters, I enjoy them but I don’t see myself being a part of them.
Other than working on my memoirs I’m appearing in the play Taj with the Bollywood star Kebir Bedi, at Luminato. I have a role in a Canadian short film slated for release at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival. And, an unscripted, six-part documentary-style series shot in India for TLC will air later this year. And of course, my first entrepreneurial venture – Moksha Yoga Brampton opened at the end of May.
B What are some of Lisa’s indulgences?
L I’m a big time ‘foodie,’ always searching for the
latest, kooky food trends. Yoga is really important to me. Beyond that, I love to kick back and enjoy myself with friends. Lots of massages. And since I am in between relationships, I’d like to sort out my personal life. Put the word out. (We have another big laugh)
B How has your view of you changed?
L I’ve become gentler with myself. I was pretty self-critical, that attitude has softened. Now I have a way of contributing. I’ve been involved with other charities before, but now, I am in the fight for my life.
B If you could change something in your script, what would it be?
L I can’t. I’m the culmination of all the experiences, this is who I am. I just turned 39 and I don’t have any regrets, what’s done is done, there was a reason at the time and now I’m moving forward. I definitely have a different feeling about my birthday now. Not, “Oh, I’m a year older,” but, “I’m HERE! Another year lived.” It’s awesome!
B And look at all that you’ve accomplished in the past two years: diagnosed in June 2009; harvesting your stem cells; chemo to kill the bad cells and then the transfusion of your stem cells in January 2010. Now you’re cancer-free. You’ve been an advocate for your life, getting the best treatment, you’re a cancer graduate and a spokesperson for everyone touched by any high risk disease.
L I didn’t look at it in that way. That is good. I should sit back to introspect on that. All I know is this is what I can do, how I can contribute. There’s such a sense of gratitude for the term cancer graduate, it got me through the darn program. I want my degree now! As much as I’d love to personally thank each person who supported or gave me positive energy along the way, it’s not realistic. What I can do is to pay it forward and pay back from my platform as a celebrity. I’m blessed that I’m able to use it to educate and inspire people.
B You’ve said, “Love is an action.” Is this what you’re doing?
L I think so. I’ve had romantic notions of love, as we all do. Love is actually a force, an energy that must be put into action. I don’t believe you need to say it all the time, it is more important to show it by putting the energy in motion and it will expand to others.
B Consciously navigating the world is challenging. What would your bumper sticker read?
L “I must be a mermaid. I have no fear of depths but a great fear of shallow living.” Anaïs Nin said that. Another part of it would be “Honk if you like what you see!” (Another hearty chuckle)
B Your five highest values?
L Relationships. Relationships. Relationships. Honesty. Service. Honesty with self and others. Service as a spokesperson and in my yoga practice.
B You’re a phenomenal woman Lisa. It takes a lot of courage to step up and say all that you say and expose your beauty in every manner. Even with your shaved head, your beauty shone through.
L One of my mantras is: “Never stop fighting.” I mean for your voice in the world. Find your most authentic self. Be what you desire to be, instead of what others think you should be. Don’t stop this fight, life is an ongoing challenge. It’s all about love – internally and externally. H&L