A true beacon of light in Singapore, Dr William Tan overcomes polio and cancer to change lives

Just recently, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II awarded Singaporean Dr William Tan the Commonwealth Points of Light Award for his outstanding contribution to the community.

Dr William Tan’s story is really quite outstanding. He was born in 1957 and contracted polio at aged 2 which left him paralyzed from the waist down. Immediately, Dr Tan was dealt quite a difficult hand in life, having to live his life bound to a wheel-chair and struggle much more than any able-bodied person would – particularly in childhood when he would be picked on for being different.

But with a real strength of character and determination, Dr Tan overcame adversity and struggles to become a neuroscientist and medical doctor, receiving his education at Newcastle University in the UK. He was also well on his way to becoming quite an accomplished wheelchair-athlete by this time, competing in the 1988 Paralympics in Seoul and using his athleticism to raise money for worthy charitable organisations.

In the early 2000s, Dr Tan was awarded the Chevening Scholarship from the UK government to pursue a postgraduate education in Oxford University. It was there that he was introduced to marathons which would change his sporting career drastically, beginning with the London Marathon. It opened up a whole new horizon for him. Since then, Dr Tan has competed in over 60 ultra marathons around the world and holds six endurance marathon world records including the “fastest time to complete three marathons in three consecutive days in three countries”.

In 2007, Dr Tan became the first person in the world to accomplish a marathon in a wheelchair in the North Pole in 21 hours and 10 mins despite overwhelming obstacles and extreme conditions of –25 deg C to raise funds for Global Flying Hospitals. The very same year, he became the fastest person in the world to complete 7 marathons across 7 continents in 26 days to raise funds for international charities on 7 continents.

Through his races, Dr Tan has helped raised more than $18 million for local and international charities around the world including Polioplus for the worldwide eradication of polio and Operation Smile that works to provide cleft lop and palate operations to children around the world.

Everything seemed to be going quite well for Dr Tan who was at the top of his game in sports while also building quite a reputable career in medicine. Unfortunately in 2009, tragedy struck again. Dr Tan was diagnosed with Stage 4 leukemia. Stage 4 is also commonly referred to as end-stage cancer, meaning there was a very slim chance of recovery. His doctors gave him only 9 to 12 months to live. Dr Tan was devastated.

But of course, if we’ve learned anything about his till this point is that he isn’t one to give up so easily. Dr Tan underwent grueling months of chemotherapy followed by a bone marrow transplant in an effort to kick his cancer into remission.

“It started me thinking very seriously how I have lived my life. And I shared with my wife, if I was given a second chance, I’m going to do more, much more”.

Dr Tan became a champion for patients who couldn’t afford the high cost of cancer treatments in Singapore and he continued to race marathons to raise funds for worthy causes. Just a year after the bone marrow transplant, Dr Tan achieved his best time ever in the Berlin paracycling marathon event and accomplished two full marathons with better finishing times than his pre-cancer days. Talk about astounding achievements.

Now, Dr Tan has gotten into badminton and is training very hard in hopes to represent Singapore in the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

About two months ago, Dr Tan marked a significant milestone in his battle with leukemia: 10 years of remission.

“A 10 years remission for Stage 4 Leukemia is a big thing, and you bet that I have ever since then been living my life with gratitude.”

Dr Tan was already quite an incredible man even before cancer. He rose above his disability to achieve some amazing things in his life – marathons, fundraising, and being a medical doctor. He was already quite an inspiration.

But following the cancer diagnosis, Dr Tan did not shrink into a shell. Instead chose to shine brighter than before, to do more – which might be inconceivable to many of us able bodied and untroubled folks. We look at his life up to that point and think that he’s already done so much, he’s already climbed mountains and changed hundreds of lives, what more can you do? But Dr Tan knows that his story is not over and that as long as he is able, he will continue to do everything he can to give back to the world.

Dr William Tan is undoubtedly a true point of light in the world and this prestigious honour from the Queen of England is entirely well-deserved.

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