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Interview: Amit Vaidya on Beating Insurmountable Odds

Amit Vaidya was born in the U.S., and returned to India in 2012 after exhausting allopathic treatment options for his terminal cancer. He sought treatment at an Ayurvedic hospital in Gujarat and continued the treatment along with a complete change of life and lifestyle in a village in South India. Four years later, and cancer free, Amit - who is now based in Kerala - shares with us his journey to living a holistic, healthy and happy life. 

Tell us about yourself and what motivates you today – who are you today?

My name is Amit Vaidya. I am a human making connections with people and places. What inspires me most is expanding, embracing and nurturing these relationships; and finding equal footing in them– in other words, being an equal giver as I am a receiver. 

How has this become a driving force in your life?

We are the sum of our experiences; equal to the pluses and minuses of our experience. We spend so much time trying to add, and we don’t spend enough time subtracting. When I started subtracting, I started to see the sum total was going up as opposed to going down. The losses - or the minuses, as it were - helped me understand that the total sum has gone up.

Can you tell us a little about these minuses that you’ve removed from your life?

Some are deliberate, some just happened. It might be a person who has chosen not to be there, or a loss – whether the loss of a parent, like I’ve experienced for both of mine – or the loss of one’s identity at a specific age. Or my cancer and subsequent recovery.

These would all be what one would term as potential minuses, but in my book they are additions, because they have increased the total sum of my life’s experience.

Can you share some examples of how you have dealt with these minuses?

I can speak to the loss of a parent. It’s something that we know is going to happen – that in the traditional cycle of life, we’re supposed to be expecting the parents to pass on before we do. In my case, the role for a short time frame was reversed, because after my father passed away, I got sick [with cancer]. My mom had to realize that she might have to lose her son after losing her husband.

Seeing the selflessness with which she cared for me was something that truly rubbed off. She literally gave up who she was in order to be there for me, and care for me while I was sick. The commitment level one has when doing something like that for someone else shines through – so when she got sick [with cancer], and I had been on a hiatus from my illness – I often thought I only got better to be there for her.

I couldn’t do anything else other than be there for her 24/7 – despite what others told me - because of what she had just done for me. I hadn’t even seen that kind of commitment in myself. So when she did pass, I had a light feeling from Day 1. Because I knew I had done everything humanly possible – from caring for her, changing her, cremating her – everything. I didn’t have any regrets.

By not having regrets and being at peace with her death, it allowed me when I got sick again to realize that, hey if I could do that for her, I absolutely need to do it for myself. It became a point of inspiration and motivation for me. It taught me that a) I was going to be okay as long as I did the best that I could, and b) I had the freedom to literally go anywhere. It wasn’t a particular location, person, job or income that defined me – as a result of those minuses and losses or what have you, I knew that my sum would still increase by doing the things that matter to me.

Breathing, living, smiling, being happy, enjoying whatever time I had left. These don’t require a physical address, a specific occupation – these are basic needs. When you make yourself open up to that, it truly enables you to do anything. Try anything. And be okay with whatever happens. Whether it’s good or bad as a result of that.

I meet with so many patients, and the first thing, especially when the word disease comes up or cancer, people think it’s a death sentence. People have this attachment to it. If you meet a person with cancer who is fully realized, you’ll see they are actually very thankful. Cancer gives you a route to the end, where you can make decisions based on how much time you have. It’s a gift, all losses are a gift, because they give you the chance to make something of them and rise and improve from there.

Could you share your philosophy on health?

At the end of the day, you have to be aware of your own body and what it needs in order to be nourished. What it needs when it’s stressed. What it needs when the alarm bells are ringing.

Diseases can happen, will happen, may happen – all of that is out of our control to an extent. There’s always that cloud of “I did everything possible, why did this happen to me?” You gotta get rid of that – that’s irrelevant to the health conversation. The part you have control over, you need to actually take control over. Ultimately, the only God of us is us. We’re the only ones who actually know what our body needs.

When I got sick, I learned there were three things I still controlled – I controlled my breath, how I ate, and how I thought.

The thought part has been a journey in its own – today I meditate daily, I do Yoga, I go for long walks and runs, but I also believe that whatever you’re passionate about can be your dhyan which becomes your gyan. For me, cooking is as spiritual as singing a song. You might already be meditating and not even know that you are.

In terms of breathing – that goes hand-in-hand with the thinking – but it also has to do with being in the moment and realizing that. Because we tend to think “Why did this person do that to me” or “I can’t believe that happened to me,” and we’re living in the past or future. You do have control over your breath – the only thing that guarantees your next breath is your current breath. 

The last thing, which is sort of the key, is food. For me, medicine and food are the same thing. As a result of my illness, I had to focus on my food habits because it was affecting my digestive system. While the medicine I was taking from the hospital did its part, I needed to do my part as well. Certain things would be more effective or less effective based on what I ate and could or couldn’t digest.

Beyond our breath, food is the sign of independence. When a baby starts eating their own food after mother’s milk, they are perceived as entering into an independent phase of life. When an elderly person is no longer able to take food anymore – we know at that point, it’s the point of no return for them in terms of quality of life. When we know that food is the first and last line of defense in terms of our body, it becomes absolutely important.

The longest relationship people have besides with themselves is the one they have with food. You’re going to have ups and downs, break ups, affairs with certain fantastic new discoveries – but it’s your relationship with food that defines you. It’s really important to not just make it a temporary relationship, because it’s actually permanent. You have to be constantly be thinking about it – there are many women I know who get so sick by the time they get older, that they just don’t want to be in the kitchen. But the ones cooking until they’re 85 and 90, they live to that age for the same reason.

What advice would you give to those seeking to live a healthy life in a cosmopolitan center, such as New Delhi?

Breathe. If you don’t have the time to, learn to. Remember everything else around you is. So if everything around you is alive, and you’re the only thing that’s not breathing, then that means the problem isn’t in the world, the problem is in you. They can’t fix you, only you can fix yourself.

Given that everything else is breathing, you are exchanging the same air, the same energy as them. It’s not just people, it’s soil, the food you’re eating, bugs, plants, the sun – it’s everything. All of it encompasses your relationship with the world. Understand that – actively make sure that you are giving as much as you are taking in that relationship. Engage in that way. 

All of that is doable and achievable in Delhi. A place, however toxic it might be, it’s not fatal. There’s a difference. No one is dying today, or in their next breath, by living in Delhi. You’re making a choice to be there. If you can make the choice to be there, you can make the choice to where you’re going to breathe in that next breath in Delhi, with whom, how, what time, what will you be eating after you take that breath, where will it be prepared, who will be preparing it, at what time you’ll be having it. All of those things are in your control. There’s no room for excuses – yes, it requires more work, effort, consciousness – but it’s for you, not for anyone else.

You can purchase Amit's Memoir, Holy Cancer: How A Cow Saved My Life, on Amazon here and at leading retailers.

All proceeds from the sale of the book go to Healing Vaidya Foundation. Donations to the NGO, founded by Amit, can be made here.