In Memoriam: Anjuli Seth Nayak, MD

My goal was to break the shackles of bondage I felt in India, to flee the social stigma of being a woman, and the battles I had to fight just to have a career. The only way to achieve this was to get out of India. America was my best chance.


These words sum up much of what drove Anjuli Nayak, who recently lost her battle with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL).

She fought her disease nearly to her last breath. Her love of life didn’t allow her to do any differently.

Anjuli Nayak was diagnosed with ALL nearly six years ago. As a physician, she knew instantly that her life would never be the same. ALL has a 20% survival rate after five years.

Anjuli decided she would beat the odds.

And so began her journey with cancer, a journey I had the privilege to share. Over the six years of treatment, she underwent 40 rounds of chemotherapy, one bone marrow transplant, two genetic transplants, a port on her chest and one in her head. For the last months of her life, she lost much of the use of her legs and much of her vision.

But she never gave up. Even to the end, she was up on current events. She rejoiced in the Cubs’ World Series victory and the fact that she was able to vote for a woman president. This last meant so much to her that that she insisted on going to the polling place, pushed in her wheelchair, to participate in the election.

She also kept up on the arts in Chicago, and purchased tickets for the Opera, plays and concerts months ahead of time. If she was going to be still around, she was going to enjoy herself.

And she never let illness get in the way of enjoying her time with her sons, grandchildren, other family members and friends.

I met Anjuli in Russia when I was serving as a missionary. The city asked me to help with a team of doctors which was coming from America. My role was to be a second interpreter.

Little did I know that would be the beginning of an 18-year friendship with an incredible woman.

Over the years, Anjuli not only helped me with various medical problems, but was a friend who demonstrated what is so often called a zest for life. When I went to visit her, I never knew what we were going to do. It was clear she was in charge of the plans.

But she never disappointed. One time we got pedicures. Another we went to a lecture. I don’t remember who spoke or what about. What I recall so vividly was the way the speaker worked the crowd afterward. Never have I seen such courtesy and grace. I still try to imitate him to this day.

A year or so into her cancer journey, Anjuli asked me to be the ghostwriter for her memoir. I joyfully agreed. During the writing of the book, I gained such an appreciation for what she endured and overcame in her quest to have a career. This was not something that a woman in India could take for granted.

I also gained a deeper insight into this deeply spiritual woman. She converted to Christianity from Hinduism many years ago, and still was seeking to know God on a more intimate level.

The suffering of her disease caused her to examine her faith, to test it, and ultimately, find peace and solace. In her words:

As I prayed, I thanked God for the upcoming suffering, trying to be obedient to the command to give thanks in everything. I thanked Him that the suffering would bring me close to Him and that He was preparing me for what I would need to endure. I asked Him to heal me and to reduce the pain that I would face, and that His will—not mine—be done. I didn’t want to wallow in asking, “Why me?” I wanted to embrace God’s will for me. Accepting His will was all I had to cling to, the only thought that gave me any sense of calm.

Cover of Plucked from a Mango TreeHer memoir, Plucked from a Mango Tree, tells Anjuli’s inspiring story of her journey. How she overcame discrimination in early life, setbacks in career and personal life, and finally, the suffering caused by cancer.

Her story bears testimony to her strength of will, her refusal to give up, and most of all, her faith in God. She was able to face her cancer and impending death with peace, knowing that the end of this life was only the beginning of the next.

I’ll miss you, my dear friend. May I live my life to the fullest, as you lived yours.


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