By Shree Ann Mathavan
NOT much, it seems, can come between retiree Henry Tan, 60, and a good race.
Not even stage-three gastric cancer and having to remove two-thirds of his stomach.
Now, he is gearing up for his second 42km race since being diagnosed with cancer in early 2008 at Raffles Hospital.
Come Dec 5, the cancer survivor will be zipping along the roads in the Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore 2010 (SCMS).
His first post-cancer marathon was at the SCMS last year, which he completed in about six hours.
Completing another marathon was probably the furthest thing from his mind when the avid runner was diagnosed with cancer two years ago.
He underwent surgery to remove two-thirds of his stomach as the cancerous tumour had spread there. This was followed by six months of chemotherapy at The Cancer Centre.
His cancer has since been in complete remission.
The road to pounding the track again came with its challenges.
Surgery, in his own words, was "a torture" as he was in constant pain.
The chemotherapy also caused his hair to drop out and his fingernails to turn black. He also suffered nausea.
He recalled: "I felt very frustrated. I couldn't do anything because I was so weak. I could hardly eat because I had no strength." That ordeal saw him shedding 12kg from his previous 65kg frame.
Losing a large portion of his stomach also meant that he had to take smaller, more frequent meals, or risk throwing up.
Being sick was difficult for him, given how active he was previously. He had completed 18 marathons prior to his diagnosis.
Nevertheless, he pushed himself. He started taking evening walks in October 2008, after his chemotherapy treatment ended.
He recalled: "At first, I could do only one round around the Serangoon Stadium track - about 400m - but I kept increasing the distance by a round every time."
He soon worked his way up to exercising five times a week, alternating between long three-hour runs and shorter10kmruns.
Mr Tan said: "I thought, if I could run when I was healthy, why couldn't I do the same now? The only difference is I try to jog at a slower pace and take time to appreciate the scenery around me more."
Mr Tan's cancer experience has made him appreciate his health a lot more, he said.
Once a compulsive smoker who puffed 20 cigarettes a day, he has kicked the habit. He's also put on the weight he lost from his illness.
Something that also spurs him on is the idea of racing against cancer. He's printed several inspirational messages on 15 running jerseys to motivate himself during his runs.
This year, he hopes to complete the marathon in under six hours. His best time for a marathon before his cancer was about 41/2 hours.
Mr Tan lives with his wife, 56, his son, 26, his daughter, 31, and his son-in-law,who is in his early 30s, in a four-room HDB flat in Serangoon.
His son, Mr Jeremy Tan, who works in IT, ran his first marathon with his father last year and finished behind the latter.
He said: "We were not too worried. He knows his limits and running is a healthy obsession for him, so why not?"
Dr Wong Seng Weng,consultant and medical director of The Cancer Centre, who has been seeing Mr Tan for the past 21/2 years, said it was impressive that Mr Tan has resumed his previous active lifestyle.
In his 15 years of treating cancer patients, he's only had one other patient complete a marathon after recovery.
Dr Wong said there are no hard and fast rules to exercising after recovering from cancer.
"The patient should take it easy and build up gradually. It should not be a case of no pain, no gain," he added.
While cancer still worries him, Mr Tan is determined to keep running for as long as he can, and invites recovering cancer patients to join him at Serangoon Stadium where he trains most evenings.
"Cancer isn't the end of the world. If I can do it (run marathons), so can others. It's tough but it can be done," he said.