KUALA LUMPUR: At 38 years old, Tan Jee Tjun appears to have the world at his feet. He is a partner at an established law firm here, a doting husband and a proud father of two beautiful children.
He is also a Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) black belt holder, which signifies an expert level of technical and practical skills in the martial art.
But Tan is also a late-stage cancer patient. In March 2018, he was diagnosed with stage three nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a cancer that occurs in the nasopharynx, an area behind the nose and above the back of the throat.
“I was 33 years old, going on 34. I already had my son. My wife was pregnant with my daughter. I was in the prime of my life and career in my early 30s.
“Having been told that you have cancer, and then after the staging, late-stage cancer – stage three is late-stage cancer – was a bit of a tough pill to swallow,” Tan told FMT Lifestyle.
Tan subsequently started radiation and chemotherapy, a period he described as “hell on earth”.
During these treatments, his throat was lacerated, and he could not eat or talk. His sinuses were inflamed and every time he coughed, the pain was excruciating. He lost 8 kg in one week and was hospitalised.
After completing the treatment that year, he experienced another devastating side effect: losing his natural voice due to radiation damage. “One day, I may lose my voice completely. Imagine having this news as a lawyer.”
However, Tan was relieved to be told there was no evidence of the disease left. But eight months later, he discovered a lump on his neck.
Doctors told him the cancer had spread to his lungs and had progressed to stage four. He was told that if his body failed to respond to the treatment, he’d only have two years to live.
“It’s a position I wish on no one, even my worst enemy. It’s terrible to be told that you would die a slow and painful death in two years,” he said.
A time to be brave
Open-chest surgery followed. But he was told later that it was unsuccessful in removing the tumour. More treatment ensued, and he spent time in Taiwan undergoing proton and radiation treatment as well as chemotherapy.
Although this course of treatments resolved the issues in the local recurrence, which is the area where the cancer began, the cancer remains in his lungs to this day.
Now, Tan lives from scan to scan and continues to undergo chemotherapy. But he is determined to live his life to the fullest. “Whether I like it or not, I have to walk this path. Might as well do it with an open mind,” he said.
This realisation has seen him fighting back with gusto. As the breadwinner of his family, they are his greatest motivation, namely his nine-year-old son, Freyr, who is autistic.
Tan, who had been practising BJJ since 2010, pushed on, earning his black belt in February 2020. He even designed a protector for a chemo port on his body to ensure that he could still practise BJJ despite the amount of contact involved.
Over last year and this year, he participated in three international competitions in Singapore and Thailand where he bagged gold and silver medals.
“I compete not to prove anything to anyone, but to tell myself that I will not be hampered and impeded from living my life because of this wretched disease.”
Earlier this month, he scaled Mount Fuji in Japan, although a typhoon prevented him from reaching the summit.
On Day for the Welfare of Cancer Patients today, Tan has this message for fellow cancer patients: “This is from the TV series, ‘Game of Thrones’ in which Bran Stark asks his father Lord Eddard Stark: can a man be brave when he’s afraid? And Eddard Stark said: that is the only time he can be brave.”
Strong words to live by indeed. All the best in living your life to the fullest, Tan.