The Mind, a Cow, and the Challenges of Cancer

An interview with author Amit Vaidya who talks about taking the road less travelled to discover his own path of healing

An interview with author Amit Vaidya who talks about taking the road less travelled to discover his own path of healing

The author with Sakshi, the cow that made him emotionally safe. Source: Amit Vaidya.

The author with Sakshi the cow. Source: Amit Vaidya.

In 2012, Amit Vaidya’s oncologist in the United States told him that his cancer had resurfaced and was spreading from the stomach to the lungs, liver and spine, in spite of countless chemo sessions, radiation and two clinical trials. The doctor’s prognosis was that the 34-yearold Indian-American had about six more months to live.

The dark shadow that had engulfed Vaidya’s life since 2004 was showing no signs of lifting: losing his father unexpectedly in his mid-twenties, being diagnosed with cancer two years later and going into remission three years hence only to become caregiver to his mother who fought an even more aggressive form of cancer till she died in 2011, and now discovering that his cancer had returned and was spreading.

Vaidya, an expert in media economics, decided to stop the ‘tried and tested’ path and take the road less travelled. The 37-year-old’s book Holy Cancer: How a cow saved my life, which has just been published, chronicles his singular journey in India which began with the idea of trying out alternate therapies, as indeed he did, but ended with a philosophy of a physical and emotional healing process for life. In an interview, Amit Vaidya talks to Chitra Padmanabhan about learning to live in the moment; reciprocating the incredible kindness of strangers in the darkest of moments by creating a circle of care; and acquiring knowledge about  options that gave him a choice to pursue the path he thought best suited him. Excerpts from the interview:

Q: You state quite emphatically that yours is not a ‘how-to-cure book nor is it a blanket endorsement of any particular form or type of treatment.

A:  The book will carry a different meaning for those who are affected by cancer, are caregivers to someone with cancer or have lost someone to cancer. But ‘Holy Cancer’ is not just an account of an alternate treatment that I went through. It is more a memoir about a journey of letting go, finding peace, facing realities and developing the grace to accept love, whoever it comes from. The book is about my discovery of an organic way of life in which treatment becomes secondary to a continuous process of healing in a physical as well as emotional sense.

Q: Where did your journey begin?

A:  I was fortunate to have a secure and privileged childhood. We lived around the world wherever my father’s work as a chemist took him. It was from them that I imbibed a curiosity about the world around me and a deep confidence that regardless of physical distance we would always be there for one another.

My parents were equally attached to their huge families in India and devoted much of their time, energy and money towards them. We spent every summer in India; in fact I spent four years in Delhi as a teenager, studying  at the American school. I was the guy with a hundred friends but no ‘best friend’. For me, my parents were my best friends.

Q: Did these warm memories of India prompt you to come to India in 2012 when you heard about your dire prognosis?

A:  It was more of a symbolic trip. In many ways I thought I wouldn’t even reach India, that I would be dead when the plane touched down at Delhi. There was this romanticised notion in my mind that I was making the trip that my mother was not able to make. I was more concerned about getting on that plane as a first step, not so much with what lay ahead.

Q: Was there an element of irrationality there? You mention the irrationality of the chemo brain?  What does the term mean?

A: It’s a clinical term which is used in a loose manner as well.  The amount of medicines pumped into your system affects the blood count and haemoglobin. A low platelet count can give rise to hallucinations, leading to irrational judgements. The term chemo brain is also used loosely to describe a condition wherein you let the treatment dictate how you think and feel. For instance, if the doctors say that you are going to feel worse, then you feel worse.

Similarly, thinking that you are going to be ‘fine’ because they say so is also an instance of chemo brain because you are living in denial. You know what will happen if you continue on this tried and tested road. In my view, you are likely to fight harder when you know exactly where you stand. The one mistake that haunts me is the doctor telling me that we would ‘beat’ the disease. I know better now that life isn’t about beating cancer but about living with it, for one is only as healthy as one’s last scan.   

Q: Once it struck home that you hadn’t quite died when the plane touched down in Delhi, what did you look forward to?

A: I had some faith in my extended family, some thoughts about alternate treatments and some anxiety whether anyone would feel strongly enough to ensure that I did not die alone in a nursing home.  My expectations vis-à-vis relatives were largely belied. During one cathartic meeting with my mother’s sisters in Mumbai, however, one aunt casually showed me an article in a Gujarati magazine about an Ayurvedic hospital in southern Gujarat which claimed to provide a cancer cure in 11 days for the fee of Rs 1. As she read on, it became clear that the hospital primarily treated its patients with ‘cow therapy’. In the book I have not given out the identity of the hospital for I don’t want it to seem as if I am endorsing that hospital completely.

Q: Did you immediately make up your mind to try out the treatment?

A: Now this might sound strange but I have always been fascinated by cows; some of my happiest memories are of going to dairy farms in Bucks County, where I grew up, to pet cows and have the best ice cream in the world.

Now it seemed that a cow could give much more than milk, cheese or ice cream. There was a feeling of disgust too at the mention of cow urine and dung being part of the treatment. However, the preposterous nature  or sheer courage, whichever way you look at it, of anyone claiming that they could cure cancer in 11 days and for the cost of one rupee with a combination of Ayurveda and ‘cowpathy’ aroused my curiosity like nothing else.

Moreover, the memory of all the friends I had lost to cancer – to whom I have dedicated my book — egged me on that 11 days would not kill me; I was going to die anyway. Maybe I could learn something from the experience; if nothing else, I would have one more story to recount. My life has always been about having new experiences and taking the road less travelled. My parents did that and after their deaths it became  important for me to find a way whereby my life continued to have more stories. One part of me said I would be meeting my parents soon so I needed a fresh stock of stories; the hopeful part of me said that my parents were guiding me. Either way it was a treatment to consider for I was an open-minded sceptic.

Q: You describe the first day of treatment when a coat of cow dung was applied on your tumour spots in full view of everybody and the anxiety it triggered in you because you had never taken your shirt off in public being mindful of your weight (100 kg at the time of treatment).

A: Any of my friends in the US would tell you that during my chemotherapy sessions I would enter the chemo ward wearing a suit and tie or fancy cardigan, and Prada shoes. In doing so I was taking my disease as seriously as my job. If I looked good, I would feel good. I certainly wasn’t going to let the disease dictate my health.  This idea of one’s image being for oneself and not for someone else’s consumption was something I learnt from my mother. It didn’t matter that she had lost her hair or was swollen up due to the 24 units of steroids she was taking daily; she looked her best every single day, even as everybody else walked in wearing sweatpants or shorts, looking miserable. I followed her mantra.

Because the idea of the image is about the self, there also has to be a level of authenticity to it  you do something because it means something to you. Among other things, the treatment at the hospital required me to drink a concoction made of cow urine, dung, ghee, curd and milk (panchagavya) and coat myself with cow dung by exposing myself physically.

I had no choice but to go along. Then I made the discovery that people were not sizing me up to see how fat or hairy or presentable I was; they were simply looking for the tumour spots where the dung had to be applied. In essence, we were all stripped down to the disease.

At this point my earlier logic that I could prevent the disease from controlling me if I looked good flipped completely. The disease had consumed me. To sit for an hour covered in cow dung with its overpowering stench in the hope that it is doing something, you have to let go of preconceived notions. The cleansing that resulted from this pushed the boundaries of my capacities, leaving me open to new possibilities. At this point I was influenced by my chemist father — even to see if a line of treatment has clinical benefits, you have to make the most of it.

Q: You did two stints at the hospital. What changes did you experience?

A: It was as if I was being rewired to be in sync with my evolving realities. Compared to my wounds of multiple years of chemo, radiation and clinical trials, eating jau ki roti (chapattis made of barley) or red rice, or food cooked in ghee and mixed with medicines that they did not tell us about, was infinitely better than my plight in the preceding three years when everything tasted like sawdust and nails. My perspective was different from most of the other patients there.

Still, there continued to be a level of conformism in me in that I wanted to belong somewhere. My expectations of others was affecting my ability to heal by letting go.  The lack of a loving family or circle of care can be the toughest non-chemo pill to swallow.

Q: How did you resolve this conflict within yourself?

A: One of the amazing things I have learnt in the course of my journey is that you don’t always know who will step up and be there for you — one stranger can fill a void that 100 family members cannot. The hospital could not accommodate me beyond two treatment sessions and I was in total disarray not knowing where to go. Then I happened to meet Mohanlalji who had come from a village in north Karnataka for his mother’s treatment (the name of the good Samaritan and the village have been changed in the book at his request). She wanted me to accompany them to their village because she did not like the thought of me being alone. There would be farm fresh food and moreover, they reared desi cows similar to the ones at the hospital, so I could continue my therapy.

A view of the village landscape in north Karnataka where Amit Vaidya's healing process began. Source: Amit Vaidya

A view of the village landscape in north Karnataka where Amit Vaidya’s healing process began. Source: Amit Vaidya

For a stranger to say, we don’t have much money and we don’t speak the same language, but you are welcome to stay for a week, a month, a year or more, with no strings attached was extraordinary. Mohanlalji’s willingness to shoulder my responsibility without having any idea of what lay ahead gave me the freedom that no drug treatment could have given.

Later I discovered that he was an important man in his village and put his influence with people to use by creating an entire support system for me.

Q: What impact did this gesture have on you?

A: My actual healing process began at the village. The minute I saw the simplicity of the place  I was ready to accept the challenge of healing.  For someone who had not done a day’s camping out in the rough, I accepted the fact that I would have to live without adequate plumbing, draw water from a well, and manage without much electricity.

This new family that I had been gifted with mirrored the loving family that I had fond memories of growing up with, which says a lot about how modernisation has affected India. Villages are not lagging behind; it’s just that culturally they have more time, which is the one thing that has been ‘eradicated’ from urban India. To discover that people have time to  listen to you, to say something and realise that it is the  first time they are probably hearing of it is such a life booster that it makes everything you do  so much more worthwhile.

Q: You have written that a cow saved you, made you feel emotionally safe.

A: My room was near the gaushala. It was  a lonely place. Mohanlalji would return to his family  by 6.30 pm. There was just one light in the gaushala. It was literally the cows and me. Just as in the film Castaway, a marooned Tom Hanks uses a volleyball as an emotional support, I transferred my emotions on to the cows. Ganga gave me milk but it was Sakshi with whom I had an intimate connection. Knowing that someone was physically always there gave me a sense of permanence that no home could provide, and this time it wasn’t a case of chemo brain acting up either. I stayed in Hassilgaon for about 16 months, from July 2012 to late 2013.

Q: How did you measure the extent of your healing?

A: Every three months I would go to Mumbai to get my scans done. Each scan opened up a window of opportunity but also some anxiety. After spending many years preparing to die, the idea of living had just been instilled in me at the village. How I would manage to live was a question I had overlooked during my journey.

Looking back, I can say that the hospital and the village eradicated the cancer and detoxified me at a physical level. However, I still had to deal with the emotional fallout of the disease which could only be done by returning to Mumbai.   There is no scan to tell you that you have let go of the baggage of hurt, sadness and isolation that you have been carrying all these years. Back in Mumbai, the pressures of reassimilating into my previous life were immense. Society expects you to just slip back into the rut, without any acknowledgement of the changes that have occurred in you both internally and externally.

It took a mini stroke to make me realise that I was in danger of throwing away the second life that I had worked so hard for. It was more important to focus on letting go of all expectations in a way that I never got sick again.  The fact that my book is out there signifies one of the last stages of letting go.

Q: What next?

A: In the past year my struggles to get this book published kept me in Delhi where I met hundreds of cancer patients through friends’ friends and people known to them. I have had a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, whose wife’s cancer is in its last stage, as well as an ordinary clerk approach me. What was surprising, however, was that the CEO, despite his access to hospitals and doctors around the world, asked the same uninformed questions as the clerk. There seems to be a lack of legitimate, forget scientifically proven, and well articulated recommendations coming from places that exemplify the small changes we can make in our lives.

This has led to the idea of creating a platform through an NGO that goes beyond me and other cancer survivors to reach out to the community, for the purpose of sharing experiences as the first step towards aggregating a knowledge base devoid of any dogmatism about one line of treatment being better than the other. The first level of activity would be to provide information through publications and other mediums. Knowing whether something is good or bad becomes a secondary question when there is no inkling of what is out there to be accessed.

For me, developing the capacity to accept the kindness of strangers in the right spirit and honing one’s ability to access knowledge and allow it to guide me is what has saved me. I am wary of using the word cure and use it in the book only when someone else uses it, such as the doctors who pronounced me ‘cancer free’ in 2014. The word cure is suggestive of an end but life goes on. As I said earlier I, or for that matter anybody, am only as healthy as the last scan.

Q:Have there been any jarring notes in your journey?

A: To put it plainly, I have no ‘agenda’ other than my stated objectives. However, I have been approached by about a 100  organisations asking me to declare that gau mata cured me. In all honesty I cannot  say that. I tell all these people to read the book first and then talk to me.  True, a cow saved me, but it was a specific group of cows and they were as much a part of my lives as I was of theirs.

Moreover, my healing process wasn’t just a case of drinking a concoction and becoming better. Yes, I have been given a second life but I had to take the required steps to make it happen. You have to work hard to change your life’s routine and become disciplined to get there. I don’t think I have recommended this treatment to more than five people out of the 1000 odd people who have approached me. If they find it difficult to have a jau ki roti, how are they going to have a cow dung bath twice a day?

My journey has taught me that ultimately the healing process is to do with being informed about life and living, death and dying.  It is important to be prepared for all four things at all times. Our society tends to shove people away when they get long term ailments, especially the elderly, purely because of our casual ‘sab ho jayega’ attitude. There are few palliative options available. This is a dangerous thing considering that we have a large ageing population which is being put on medicines  that merely elongate the process of death.

Q: What has your journey taught you about the place of death and disease in present-day society that wants to banish both?

A: Disease is inevitable, so is death. The further we drift from reality, the harder it is to let go; ageing gracefully is something that can only begin when we let go.

The more we accept what is going to happen the more we are in control. People are unwilling to talk about these things, but there is no reason to be scared unless we are unwilling to make changes in our lives. It boils down to the fact that we want life to be in stasis whereas life is all about a continuous flow and change. To be in denial is to deny the possibility of living and life.