Nobody expects to be diagnosed with cancer at the age of 25, and up-and-coming Canadian plus-size model Elly Mayday, now 29, didn’t either. She’d just moved from Saskatchewan to Vancouver, B.C. to start her career as a model when she was blindsided by an ovarian cancer diagnosis. But instead of putting her dreams on hold, Mayday posed for a local lingerie line, bald and with her surgical scars on display after undergoing a hysterectomy and multiple rounds of chemo. From there, her career took off.
For this self-described “strong chick,” strength has meant claiming her space in the modelling world as a woman who is fighting cancer. And as the face of ADDITION ELLE’s newest campaign, BRAve (in partnership with the organization Ovarian Cancer Canada), she’s doing just that. The campaign teamed up with Ovarian Cancer Canada to support its bold #LadyBalls movement. “Women have balls—they’re called ovaries, and they’re at risk,” says Ovarian Cancer Canada, who is asking women to say educated about the disease that claims five Canadian women a day, and for which there is no screening test or vaccine to prevent it.
FLARE sat down with Mayday to talk about what it’s like to model while battling ovarian cancer, and how she finds the strength to inspire other women to do the same.
Why do you think showing your scars in photographs is so powerful?
People are curious. I wanted people to know more about ovarian cancer. I’m merging two worlds that otherwise would not be together. I’m a scarred, not-so-flawless, not-so-perfect body diving into this world that is perfection, beauty and glamour. Bringing the realness of life and of cancer stories [into my work] is something that I’ve tried to do, and people love it. People are interested in stories and a girl that has something to say—not just a pretty face. I felt like I could bring this disease along with me and share the spotlight. I’d been modelling for a year prior to my diagnosis and had contracts in my hand, ready to go to New York—then got this bomb dropped on my life. I just kept on going.
What was your experience like modelling while undergoing cancer treatment?
Luckily, I had amazing photographer friends and makeup artists that were all there to support me and love me through this. And if I didn’t make it through this period of my life, someone else would be able to talk about it. I always talk about body confidence and being OK with yourself, and what a hypocrite [I would be] to lose my hair and lose the things that make me “beautiful”… I had to put my money where my mouth was so I stepped up to the plate.
In terms of dealing with health and illness, do you think women are treated differently than men?
Unfortunately, I think women don’t put themselves first. That’s just the nature of our “take care of others” attitude, but also I think doctors generally don’t think that women know their bodies as well as they do; we get kind of pushed to the side. I’m trying to encourage women to really put themselves first.
How have you used social media as a tool for spreading your message of body positivity and empowerment?
Social media is really empowering for people with all different body shapes. Influencers have a lot of power and I really understood that when I was going through my process of treatments and operations. I may have just one [follower] that’s going through what I was going through two years ago, and maybe I can help someone get diagnosed early, or maybe I can make someone feel better about themselves. I shared my down times, too, but not as much as I shared my positive side. I was pretty adamant that I was going to fight this and that life was going to go on. That was really important to me to show. Life changes, but you want to keep it as normal as possible.
What advice would you give young women who are struggling with self esteem?
You are complete and whole exactly as you are, and you are loved by the people that you need to be loved by. If you don’t feel that, you will find them; you deserve to find them. When I was sick and I had lost 60 pounds and I was balding, I felt like I look like Gollum some days. But I told myself that I was going to be fine, and that if this all went away for the rest of my life, I would still be loved by the people that I needed to love me.