Exclusive Story by WeirdKaya – Reproduction requires proper crediting and backlink to us. Kindly acknowledge the efforts of our editors in sourcing and conducting interviews.
Cancer is a disease that strikes fear in the hearts of those who either have been diagnosed with it or know of someone who is currently battling the disease. And like most degenerative diseases, it eats away at the body and mind of the sufferer until there’s nothing left in them to fight back.
But for Tan Jee Tjun, being a late stage cancer patient hasn’t prevented him from living his life to the fullest as a lawyer and Brazilian jiujitsu (BJJ) black belt holder, something that no one would imagine to be possible
To know what was the incredible driving force which enabled him to accomplish this, one has to go back to where it all started in 2018.
Prior to his cancer diagnosis, Jee Tjun was living the dream by working as a lawyer at a reputable legal firm and was blessed with a son.
Over time, Jee Tjun began to notice that he was experiencing frequent nosebleeds but due to his busy schedule and “gung-ho personality”, he didn’t think too much about it and largely ignored it.
“In 2018, I noticed my ear was blocked and I was having severe migraines. After consulting a general practitioner (GP), I was prescribed antibiotics and painkillers. But the migraines didn’t go away even after a few weeks.
“Knowing that I couldn’t save money on such things, I went to see a specialist, who performed a series of tests on me and diagnosed me with sinus and ear infection before giving me strong antibiotics,” he told WeirdKaya in an exclusive interview.
‘My world just came crashing down’
Unfortunately, two weeks later and with the antibiotics running low, Jee Tjun’s migraines were still present and this caused him to skip out on BJJ training sessions.
“Dr Jason Leong, a friend and BJJ training partner of mine, noticed I had been missing several sessions and found that to be very uncharacteristic of me. After telling him of my situation, he recommended a friend who was an ENT specialist at Universiti Malaya (UM).
“I then made an appointment with the specialist, who then performed a scope (test) on my nose. When it was over, his facial expression changed and he asked me, ‘How old are you?’
At that moment, there were two diseases that came to mind immediately: heart disease or cancer. He just did a test on my nose so it couldn’t be the former.
“After a while, he told me that there was a tumour in my nasopharynx. I did a biopsy on the same day and was informed a week later that I had stage 3 nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC). In fact, the tumour was so big that it was actually pressing against my skull,” he said.
Naturally, the news came as a huge shock to Jee Tjun, who never expected his life to be upended by cancer.
I was 33 at the time and was just made a partner at the firm a year ago. In one moment, you are on top of the world, only to have it all come crashing down.
“The news caused me to fall into despair and my family was deeply heartbroken. Although many offered their support and help, but at the end of the day, the dark, lonely path of facing cancer was for me to walk,” he recalled.
Going through ‘hell on earth’
As it was with any cancer patient, Jee Tjun underwent months of intense rounds of chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgeries — a process which he described as ‘hell on earth’.
“I was hospitalised three times and was at death’s door several times. I lost my voice and sense of taste, my immune system has been compromised, my left ear is partially deaf and my thyroid glands are completely ‘fried up’.
The entire process was literally hell on earth. I wouldn’t even wish it on my worst enemies.
After months of treatment, Jee Tjun began to see an improvement in his condition. Unfortunately, it was quickly shattered in 2019 when the cancer spread to his lungs, resulting in stage 4 lung cancer.
At the advice of his oncologist, Jee Tjun went to seek treatment at Taiwan’s Chang Gung Memorial Hospital Cancer Center, the same place where Malaysian badminton legend Datuk Lee Chong Wei sought treatment for nose cancer.
“Although the proton and radiation treatment resolved my local recurrence, it couldn’t resolve the metastasis to my lung and I’m still living with it to this day,” he said.
Fighting back with Brazilian jiujitsu
Most would have probably given up when faced with the same circumstances as Jee Tjun did, but for him, his undiminished love for Brazilian jiujitsu (BJJ) was what gave him the mental strength and fortitude to push on.
However, going back to training after having his body completely broken by the cancer treatment took a toll on his body, something which Jee Tjun remembers all too well.
“During my first round of sparring, I purposely chose a 14-year-old boy as my partner to test myself out. After just a minute, I was completely out of breath and nearly vomited.
But I told myself: I may not live long as a cancer patient. If I am to go, I want to go doing what I like and on my own terms.
And that was what Jee Tjun did just three months after his first chemo treatment in 2018, where he took part in his first competition in years and won gold, thus paving the way to him earning a brown belt at the end of the year.
In 2020, he was awarded a black belt, making him the only person so far to earn a black belt while undergoing late stage cancer treatment.
Defying all odds
After the cancer metasized in Jee Tjun’s lungs, a chemo port was surgically embedded into his chest, where the chemotherapy drugs would be injected into his body as his veins were severely damaged by the treatment.
Despite the immense damage inflicted on his body, Jee Tjun’s passion to take part in BJJ competitions didn’t dim one bit and he even designed a special protective suit for the chemo port.
“Last year, I wrote a letter to BJJ competition organisers in the Southeast Asia to allow me to compete, where they graciously allowed me to while warning me to do so at my own risk.
“With their permission, I competed in the ADCC Thailand event in October and came in at second place. The next month, I took part in ADCC Singapore and won the gold medal via submission.
It was one of the greatest moments in my life, not because I won the gold medal, but because I didn’t give up although everything inside me told me to.
Broken but not crushed
Having heard the incredible challenges that Jee Tjun has gone through thus far, I had to ask him what exactly gave him the strength to carry on. His answer? External and internal factors.
“External factors would be my family, most notably my mother, wife, and two children. My mother lost her husband to a heart attack years ago and my son is autistic. If I were to go so soon, who’s going to take care of them?
“As such, I told myself that I can’t die just yet and I’ll go on until the fire in me burns out,” he said.
As for internal factors, Jee Tjun attributed it to the mental fortitude he had built over the many years of practicing BJJ as well as his fierce commitment in taking care of his family.
“When I was first diagnosed with cancer and told that I would die within two years, I broke down and cried myself to sleep for days.
However, there are things more important that what I feel. I’m a man, and a man has to do what he needs to do — that is to be strong for my family.
While Jee Tjun is very much still experiencing the painful side effects of treating his lung cancer, his will to live is nevertheless all the stronger.
“I still haven’t given up. While I’ve accepted that I may die a slow, painful death, but deep inside, I’m confident that I’ll make it to a ripe, old age,” he declared boldly.