They didn't just survive cancer; they grew through it. Nilima and Vijay Bhat, co-authors of My Cancer is Me, talk to Averil Nunes about life, with and beyond cancer
At 40, Vijay, a senior advertising executive with Ogilvy, was living a life most people only dream of a globetrotting expat, two kids in international schools, the best cuisine, couture and experiences that money could buy... Nilima, his wife, had quit her high-flying corp comm job, two years prior, in pursuit of purpose. “It felt like coming home,” is her description of yoga and vedanta.
Perhaps her discovery of this home within herself enabled her to be Vijay’s “anchor”, when a typical cold, dark day in London turned colder and darker with the shadows of fear, uncertainty, anger, vulnerability and other debilitating emotions that surfaced with Vijay’s colon cancer diagnosis on December 12, 2001.
The shock of the diagnosis and the surgery (though successful), caused them to re-evaluate their notions of illness and health. They weighed the odds and decided against chemotherapy; opting for a more holistic and conscious way of life instead. “My life changed at all levels physical (diet, work hours, exercise, sleep); mental, emotional; systemic (work, family, social connections) and spiritual.
As a result, the person living that life was also different,” explains Vijay. His quest for purpose began when he took “the fork in the road” that cancer presented. But it was only after a shift to a new role in Hong Kong, another three years and a second surgery that Vijay let go of his 21-year career with Ogilvy and returned to India.
Cancer skewed the patriarchial man-woman dynamic. “Before, I put him on a pedestal and I was in service. Becoming the caregiver suddenly made me the stronger person. The roles were reversed. Even this lasts its course. The caregiver has to give back the power to the patient. Otherwise that person will remain in receiver mode and will not exercise their own power,” says Nilima. Vijay echoes, “Power is a slippery slope. But the more difficult it is, the more crucial it becomes to reclaim your own power.”
“Put on your oxygen mask, before you try to help anyone else,” insists Nilima, who made some of her dearest friends, during this time. “Check your emotions”, she suggests, “If you feel frustrated or resentful, simply acknowledge it. You can cry and be angry. It’s okay.” Through the turmoil, Nilima developed deep spiritual roots and the strength to redefine herself and her relationships.
“The journey through cancer meant addressing the darkness, the trauma, the papered-over things about my life, the dynamics in the family, our relationship. The pain led to transformation. My life healed,” says Nilima. Faced with his own mortality, Vijay circled back to rediscover his 300-year-old Chitrapur Saraswat spiritual lineage, albeit on his own terms.
In search of answers, they trawled through “endless haystacks of information with too few needles”, studied Vipassana, Transactional Analysis, Family Constellations and a whole lot more. In 2003, Nilima was approached by Hong Kong University to write a book on the efficacy of Chinese medicine in dealing with cancer. Vijay, who had dashed off 500 emails to friends, family and colleagues across the world, within days of being diagnosed, discovered that sharing his experience was helping others and had a book of his own to write. Those books didn’t happen, but My Cancer is Me, published in 2013, comprises “curated content from creditable sources” and over a decade’s worth of personal experience.
It’s tough to imagine them “growing apart”, almost to the point of separation. One takes over where the other leaves off, yet there’s space between for new thought. “People expect you to get over it, to forget,” remarks Nilima. “Cancer should be remembered and honoured as the thing that changed your life for the better, that brought purpose to it. Can you develop a relationship with it based on something healthier than fear?” asks Vijay, in a series of inspirational youtube videos, guest-starring a crab, on www.cancerawakens.com.
Cancer-free for 11 years, Vijay continues to manage Roots and Wings, a leadership training consultancy for corporate, that the couple launched on their return to India in 2004. As Nilima moves into the "women's empowerment" sphere, she will pass on the reins of Sampurnah, their "wholeness centre" specialising in cancer coaching that took form in 2009, to Vijay.