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Illness to wellness

So what if it’s cancer? Survivor Vijay Bhat organises ‘retreats’ that help patients and their families adopt a holistic approach to the deadly illness, writes Kinjal Dagli.

health and fitness Updated: Jul 26, 2008 23:06 IST
Kinjal Dagli

On December 12, 2001, 40-year-old Vijay Bhat was diagnosed with cancer of the colon during a routine medical examination. An advertising professional based in London with his wife, Nilima, and two children, Bhat was ill-prepared for what lay ahead. “We spent two days in shock, just crying and praying. But on the third day, I wrote an email to about 500 people — friends, colleagues and relatives — telling them how vulnerable I felt and asking them to ‘storm Heaven’ with and for us. It was my way of reaching out,” recalls Vijay.

Seven years since, Vijay is ‘cancer-free’ in medical terms, having not had a recurrence for over five years. The ride, of course, wasn’t easy: It involved small and huge changes, right from altering diets and lifestyles to more major decisions like relocating to Bangalore and cutting down on work.

The Bhats kept the emails going, appraising their social and professional circles of their changing psyches and circumstances, ups and downs. And they believe that the responses they received, of “love, support, advice and prayer”, were a crucial contributor to Vijay’s healing process. The healing was

just the beginning of his shifting focus. As the Bhats wrote in one of their emails, just before relocating to India: “This is the first step in beginning our ‘real work’.

The Bhats have now plunged full-time into ‘holistic health’ through their organisation, Roots & Wings. ( Last year, they successfully organised ‘Illness to Wholeness’, the first of their ‘retreats’ for cancer patients and their caregivers.

“Most people know nothing about cancer except that it’s deadly. The first shocked reaction is: ‘Am I going to die?’ We are trying to change the language around cancer, and help people see cancer as a fork in the road, not a bump,” explains Vijay, who pursued specialised courses in the Art of Coaching, Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Family Constellation Therapy while on the road to recovery.

His wife, Nilima, a certified Yoga instructor, is also a facilitator at the retreats. “The retreat has an experiential, 7-day format. Basically, participants get to learn in seven days what we learnt the hard way over five years. We cover areas like Chinese medicine, yoga and mind-body-spirit equilibrium, all of which continue to help Vijay immensely. But it’s not about any quick-fix solutions; it’s about finding direction,” says Nilima.

The 20-odd participants took back with them no ready formulae to overcome cancer, but the will to ‘honour’ cancer, as the Bhats espouse. “We tell people how to not be a cancer patient forever, and how to reclaim their power,” says Vijay.

Jasleen, a 43-year-old Delhi-based professional, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and had undergone surgery, came out of the retreat better equipped to cope with what had happened. “I had exhausted every piece of medical information about cancer. I was looking for solutions where people would understand what I was going through. Despite my initial reservations about the Bhat retreat, I came out enlightened. The best part is that they don’t advocate a particular theory; they just help you find your own answers. I found mine by addressing the spiritual needs I had long neglected,” she says.

Vijay’s plans to write a book based on his own experiences, and the couple’s tiny steps forward toward helping people who find themselves in transition, are a part of his own healing, he says. “It’s not like I’ve been there, done that and now I want to teach it to others. I’m convinced that this is integral to my own recovery, even in my seventh year of being cancer-free.”

He sums up with a smile, and a quote, “You teach best what you need to learn most.”

The Bhats are co-hosting two retreats this year along with the Cancer Patients Aid Association: one in Deolali, near Mumbai, from Aug 19-26 and another in Delhi, at the Shri Aurobindo Ashram, from Oct 12-19.