Real Life

Elly Mayday: My battle with Ovarian Cancer

Today is World Ovarian Cancer Day. To bring the issue into focus, we share our chat with Elly Mayday the plus size model, who was about to break into the big-time when cancer struck.

By Clair Weaver
When Elly Mayday turned 25, she was on top of the world. Not just literally, but figuratively. The airline hostess had recently started plus-size modelling, was about to land a major contract and was looking forward to building a career and making a name for herself.
Life was sweet. She was a young woman with plans. Her future stretched out before her like the blue horizons she would regularly stare out over as she criss-crossed the world as a flight attendant.
And then came the diagnosis. Doctors who for years had struggled to account for her lower back pain, lethargy and painful abdominal bloating referred her for exploratory surgery.
They hadn’t considered ovarian cancer because, well, she was a healthy young woman and ovarian cancer was an old lady’s disease. Yet when her test results came back indicating a rare and insidious type of tumour had been slowly metastasising in her ovaries, Elly’s world came crashing down.
Suddenly, she was facing surgery. Before she had even had a chance to properly consider the consequences, her womb was being removed in a hysterectomy that left an angry scar down the front of her body. Her dreams of one day bearing children were gone.
Chemotherapy followed and her prized long blonde hair, which she liked to wear in a signature 1950s French roll, fell out. The womanly curves on which she was counting to make it in the competitive plus-size modelling world gradually shrank. And even after all that, she still didn’t know that she’d survive to see the end of the month.
This could have been where Elly’s story ended, but she’s a fighter – and she was determined to make sure it was only where her story began.
Defiantly raising her chin and revealing her bald head and scars, Elly decided to continue modelling even as toxic chemotherapy drugs surged through her blood, leaving her sick and exhausted.
“I wanted to show that you can be beautiful when you are going through hell,” she tells The Weekly. “You’ve just got to keep your head held high and remember, no matter how bad it is, there are always people going through worse.”
In an eye-catching campaign for lingerie company Forever Yours, which had already employed her pre-diagnosis, she posed in bright red underwear next to the words, “Whether you are training for a marathon … Or kicking cancer’s butt, you need great support!”
“You don’t know how strong you are until you are backed into a corner,” she says. “I worked really hard [on the lingerie campaign] because I knew I was doing something good and that those images will always last.”
Her bravery was real: as she posed for the photo shoot, she wondered if she would survive an operation to scrape out more of her cancer. “I thought January 20 was going to be my last day,” she admits.
It was the raw and unflinching honesty of these photographs that sent them racing virally around the world. From Canada, the US and Japan to France, Italy and Australia, Elly was suddenly thrust into the limelight as an international role model.
“Modelling has kept me happy while I’ve been sick,” says Elly, now 26, who was inundated by messages of encouragement on her Facebook page. “It was wonderful to get so much support. And I’m really grateful to have a platform to raise awareness of ovarian cancer.”
Elly had become famous – but in a way she had never imagined.
Although ovarian cancer was a shock diagnosis, Elly had been experiencing symptoms on and off for three years. She had repeatedly gone to doctors complaining of intermittent lower back pain, pressure in her abdomen and tiredness, but each time she was assured it was nothing serious.
“I was sent home from emergency three or four times with just a painkiller,” she says. “So I just pushed it to the side. It would be really bad sometimes and then it would go away, and I would forget about it.”
Nevertheless, Elly underwent three CT scans to try and find out what was wrong. A large growth was detected in her left ovary. She was told it was just a cyst.
“Then, one day the pain was really excruciating – I couldn’t get my pants on,” she says. “My brother took me into hospital. The doctor said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ He gave me a shot of morphine and I just went on with life again.”
Eventually, she found a doctor who referred her to a specialist. Keyhole surgery in June 2013 revealed stage III low-grade serous carcinoma, a very rare and little understood form of the disease that usually affects older women. Despite having youth and good health on her side, the prognosis wasn’t great.
Doctors doubted chemotherapy would be particularly effective. “I was pretty angry,” says Elly, who had to take long-term sick leave from her airline job. “And I was devastated to get cancer at such a young age.”
Born Ashley Luther to a close-knit family living on a ranch near the tiny agricultural village of Aylesbury in the prairie province of Saskatchewan, Canada, Elly enjoyed an outdoorsy upbringing with her three brothers.
As well as growing crops and raising cattle, horses, pigs and chickens, her father runs a local restaurant. “I grew up in a really healthy environment,” says Elly. “We always had home-cooked meals and ate well.” There was no known family history of ovarian cancer.
Although a comfortable and safe future lay in her local village of 50 people, Elly had big dreams. As a child, she’d lie on the grass and watch planes fly overhead. She wanted to travel the world, meet new people and become a star.
At 13, she went off to boarding school, which fostered her independent spirit. After university, where her subjects included gender studies and psychology, she took up a room that became available in her brother’s share-house in Vancouver.
Here, her goals and aspirations began to come to fruition. She secured a job as a flight attendant with Canadian leisure airline Sunwing, where her routes included Cuba, Mexico and Jamaica, as well as waitressing on the side. “I always enjoyed being a flight attendant,” she says. “I love being around people and going to new places.”
She adopted her stage name Elly Mayday – inspired by a combination of The Beverly Hillbillies TV character Elly May Clampett and a nod to her aviation career – when she took up pin-up modelling as a hobby.
“I started out modelling because a lot of people said I was pretty, but no one would give me work because I wasn’t super tall or skinny enough,” she says. “So I went into pin-up because I liked the vintage style – it embraces my curves. I did it just for fun. I wanted to be a model who smiled and was a representation of women like me because when I was growing up there was no one who was bigger and beautiful.”
Elly’s full features and hourglass figure made her a perfect fit for the genre and it got her noticed – she won a contest at a car show and featured in a yet-to-be-released documentary film, A Perfect 14.
The timing was fortuitous: her profile was emerging at a time when demand for plus-size (meaning bigger than size 8) models was exploding. With the likes of Australia’s size 14 bombshell Robyn Lawley and US beauty Tara Lynn fronting international fashion campaigns, agencies were on the hunt for new talent.
It was Jaclyn Sarka, co-founder of JAG Models in New York, who first noticed Elly’s beauty on the social media site Instagram, began following her and got in touch to discuss a contract.
“Only then did we realise that this beautiful young woman was going through an incredible personal struggle,” the agency said in a statement confirming that it had signed Elly. “As [Jaclyn and Elly] kept in touch, we waited for Elly to fight her personal fight and become strong enough to launch a professional modelling career … We are excited to work together to make her an international model.”
Ironically, it turned out Elly’s celebrated curves were also home to the hormones that were probably feeding her cancer. “A doctor once said to me, as a joke, looking at my womanly figure, you are not lacking in oestrogen,” says Elly. “He was right.”
It was this strong female body, complete with childbearing hips, that Elly had hoped would one day produce her own family. “I did want to have children,” she admits. “My plan was to have five.” Yet her hysterectomy in August last year came at a time when even her survival wasn’t certain, giving her life a new perspective.
“I just put my head down and ran through the fire,” she says. “The effects of hysterectomy, chemo and surgery are pretty intense – nothing can really describe it. But cancer is a gift. Now I live my life appreciating everything. Lots of people go through life without that.”
Her mother, an artist, flew to her only daughter’s side to support her during her treatment. “She moved in with me for 10 months, even though it meant being away from the family farm and my dad,” says Elly. “Had she been able to take [the cancer] away from me, she would have.”
After her hysterectomy, Elly had three months of chemotherapy before the nine-hour operation to scrape out her cancer in January this year. Fortunately, it was successful.
Amazingly, she doesn’t bear a grudge against the doctors who didn’t take her seriously (one even suggested the pain may have been imagined) and failed to diagnose her cancer for so long.
“You just move forward to do the best you can to make it better for other women who go through it,” she says. “I don’t have time in this life to regret or hate.”
Today, Elly strikes a very different figure. She weighs about 59 kilograms and is a size 10. She’s lost 27kg, not for vanity – she was proud of her size 14.
Her weight loss sparked some online backlash, which she addressed in typically head-on fashion on her Facebook fan page last year. “If you don’t like the fact that I have lost weight, you probably won’t like the fact that I will be losing my hair in less than a few weeks,” she wrote. “Not to be one of those girls that quotes Marilyn [Monroe] repeatedly but, ‘If you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best’.”
While her work has, unsurprisingly, won her much praise, Elly has been stung by criticism, too, including some from people she considered friends.
“People said I was using cancer to make money or get famous,” she says. “It’s strange to have people jealous of you when you are sick – I never wanted to be famous because of my cancer – but you can’t let people get you down. It says more about them than me.”
So what does she think caused her story to resonate so widely across the planet?
“Cancer touches everyone,” she muses. “So I guess to see someone go through it in a positive way, but still be real about it is refreshing.”
This story was originally published in The Australian Women's Weekly July 2014.

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