Everyday hero: Anju Bhargava, Obama advisor, lung cancer survivor

Anju Bhargava. PHOTO: Courtesy Anju Bhargava

Admittedly, there’s nothing everyday about being handpicked by President Obama to serve on a White House Advisory Council on Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Neither is it commonplace to be a woman in the male-dominated New York banking industry of the 1980s.  And it’s not every day that one gets a Stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis when getting a routine heart checkup. And it’s less common that one kicks the big C’s butt over the course of a year, including solo travels to Southeast Asia, to get a “no evidence of disease” (NED) diagnosis, and for the doctors at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York to say, “this is the best possible outcome I could hope for”.

So, shouldn’t the title of this article be “extraordinary hero”? Not really, as we’d then be doing disservice to the crux of Anju Bhargava’s story—that there is a brave and equanimous person in each of us, and that by the discipline of training our mind like hers, we can also triumph adversities and master our destiny.

So how do you do it, Anju?
By following the yellow brick road. There is no point in worrying too much in life.  Just follow the yellow brick road, and the Universe responds. 

Take us back to the moment of your diagnosis. What went through your mind?
My diagnosis came as a shock to me. Other than a cough and some fatigue, I felt fine. Being told that I had Stage IV cancer when for years my doctor thought my symptoms were reflux was difficult. Thankfully, after getting second opinion, my daughter, who is my primary support, found a great medical team who laid out a plan.

On the mental front, I was able to keep worries from taking over.  I’ve gone through a lot of changes in my life. When I was in my late 20s, I got divorced at a time when not many Indian women got divorced and the support system was limited. Luckily, providence turned me towards the Divine and I became a seeker.  So, by gravitating towards spirituality and meditation, the mind became calmer and receptive to learning.

So, you get your inner strength from practicing your spirituality.
Yes, in fact,
when I got my diagnosis, I was preparing to go to an extended 30-day Vipassana course in Massachusetts, so I was well underway with the practice, the sadhana.  I started experimenting with meditation in my 20s.  Over time, I have learned to be an observer, and this helped me not get caught up in the story of what was happening.

Of course, I am a human being. There were times, especially in the early stages of adjusting to the cancer diagnosis, that I succumbed to the uncertainty of continuation of life. But one important understanding I have gained through all this is:

 there may be pain, but you don’t have to suffer. For the most part, I observed the physical pain happening, but I did not suffer much per se as I knew that the cancer did not define me. 

I am not my body and the I AM is separate from the disease.  I was not caught up in the drama of the cancer, thanks to my Vedanta and Vipassana training.

What are the top three lessons you have learned through your life and especially this big C experience.

The number one lesson of my life is that you can find peace in this life. You just have to work really hard for it, but you can find it.

Number two, I have forgiven most of the people who I think may have harmed me in some way. And I have sought forgiveness to those who I may have harmed. I have, in essence, freed my own self.

Third, everything is impermanent, nothing is forever, and this body is not me.  

And finally, you have to find practical solutions to problems constantly, rather than dwell on them and wallow in anxiety.  I love mowing my lawn, but tire easily now. So, I have somebody now who comes part time on and off to help me around the house. You know that this support is to get you over the hump, but then you have to come back to your own self to find that mind-body balance, that equanimity.

What’s next for Anju, now that you have this wonderful NED news?

My last report showed that the cancer is NED, “no evidence of disease”.  I am not cured, but the cancer is not active right now.  So, I have to go to see my wonderful medical care team every three months to get checked, and then the next step is decided.  I am learning to consciously living with uncertainty each moment.

On a personal front, being with the family, especially the grandchildren, is a priority. I certainly want to continue with some of the Dharmic Hindu seva initiatives that I had started during my tenure with the White House.  I want to help people after life-changing events, such as divorce or a job loss.  I am relatively new to Maryland and most of my networks are in the New York/New Jersey area. So, I have to reach out to some connections in the Baltimore/DC area.

I don’t think Anju is going anywhere anytime soon—she just has that sense of impregnability coupled with wisdom about her. Her work is unfinished and important and we wish her luck.

Anju Bhargava provided this interview which has been reprinted from Anu Prabhala’s Substack, Imperfectly Perfect at https://anuprabhala.substack.com. She can be reached at Pujarianju108@gmail.com.



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