emily lola tan bjj cancer fighter

I didn’t know how much grappling meant to me until this happened…

I know, I know… I’ve advocated for grappling and brazilian jiu-jitsu for years now, so why would a belt promotion ignite overwhelming feelings?

My first graduation day in 5 years

If you’ve followed my YouTube and social media journey, you’ll know I truly enjoy documenting life events. That was precisely what I was doing during Gracie Barra Playa San Juan‘s graduation day, laying low (literally) in a corner, filming the day away. Did I expected to be graded? I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a tiny hope that I would finally get my first stripe!.. but no, I didn’t expect to be graded. So, when Professors Oliver and Rodrigo called me up, I was genuinely surprised and, if I may be honest, excitingly uncomfortable. My Spanish listening skill is currently my weakest. However, I wanna think I’m good enough with contextual understanding, no matter how slow I process the spoken sentences ๐Ÿ˜… Before I knew it, something in me stirred and touched the eyes, the windows of our souls. Professor Rodrigo was sharing with our team that I’ve been training for 5 years and never been graded. There’s been a lot of moving around, yet I kept showing up, kept training, in spite of very difficult times. Then he said something that moved me deeply – this belt may be blue but her heart is of a black ๐Ÿ”ต

During these seconds, this thought hit me…

“f*******ck, I’ve been “fighting” for so long”

That was immediately followed by a deep surge of gratitude. Grateful to finally break out of survival mode, thankful to have options, and ultimately relocating to Spain, making Gracie Barra Playa San Juan my home base.

If you’re new here, allow me to give some context to the dramatic 2 minutes of my Saturday morning. It will also give clarity on how “training for 5 years” is not exactly regular weekly physical training x 5 years, and how this moment was tied to my emotional state.

๐Ÿฅ‹ How it started

5 years ago, I left my second marriage and moved from Dubai to Spain. That same year, I started training Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) at Gracie Barra Alicante, a 20-min walk from Pavigym HQ, where I used to work. Traveling was a big part of the collective work profile. That allowed me to train at a lot of jiu-jitsu academies, like Dubai, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, Thailand, and Hong Kong. Waves of gratitude would hit me, prompting thoughts like, what have I done to be so lucky, to be able a wandering white belt learning as I traveled. This is also the reason why I didn’t dare ask anyone for grading, I was never living anywhere long enough to be at one academy.

In the height of momentum (well, perceived momentum ๐Ÿคทโ€โ™€๏ธ), life threw a curveball. 4 months after I started BJJ, I was admitted to the ER in Alicante flagged as critical condition, and diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia, an aggressive type of blood cancer.

I don’t want this to be a repeat of my other posts, so if you’re interested in catching up, I’m linking my chapter of the diagnosis, treatments, the bone marrow transplant that increased my chances of survival, thanks to an unrelated bone marrow donor, and my experience in martial arts since 2005.

๐Ÿคผโ€โ™€๏ธ Grappling on and off the mat

It’s been 5 years, 13 moves, 3 countries, and thick folders worth of paperwork since my first cancer treatment. My quest to keep learning and training on the mats got interrupted multiple times by chemotherapies, getting sick from being on immunosuppressants, relocations, and the big one that affected everyone – the gym closures due to the global Covid pandemic. Like so many people around the world, I was grappling with major adjustments in health, logistics, and loss.

๐Ÿƒ Being healthy is hardly ever a black-and-white matter, our pillars of wellness are deeply interconnected – all it takes is for one going out of bounds to cause chaos to the whole unit. I’m refraining from commenting further on the life-altering changes as a result of Covid and the pandemic measures. Like yourself, each of our experiences has been different. You and I can only speak for ourselves. Among life adjustments, my perspective on health underwent a total revamp. That switch started with understanding past events and their impact on how trauma is stored in my body.

Two books I highly recommend you explore on the topic of trauma are The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk M.D. and When the Body Says No by Dr. Gabor Mate ๐Ÿ“š

I learned at the age of 32 that my nervous system has been primed to stay in fight or flight mode since I was 13. What I thought was a pursuit of self-defense knowledge from martial arts turns out to be my pursuit of self-forgiveness and self-understanding. This may sound odd to some of you but I actually feel the most calm when I’m on the mat sometimes, in spite of my body betraying me often #workingonmyfitness ๐Ÿ˜ฎโ€๐Ÿ’จ

โœ‹ Hold up, “calm”? Did I say “calm” and “grappling” in the same context?

Why, yes indeed! What I mean in that context of calm is being in a state of alertness and awareness. Training in an activity that requires non-verbal communication, reading body language, anticipating opponent’s reactions, strategizing your own responses, and juggling between technique recall and intuition, all while feeling like you’re being bulldozed, is somehow satisfying for my suspected ADHD brain and processing-in-progress trauma issues ๐Ÿ˜‚

๐Ÿ’ซ Beyond the mats (and off the pole)

This one time, in BJJ class at a gym in Hong Kong, I remember feeling so grateful to wear a face mask… because I was trying hard AF not to let out a full cry ๐Ÿ˜ท๐Ÿฅบ

It was about 6 months after the bone marrow transplant and I had just got my 3rd surgical catheter removed from my chest. 10 minutes into the warm-up drills, I was panting so hard that I was worried about getting panic attacks again. During the positional sparring, I full-on gassed TF out, and I was on my back the whole time with my neck sore and core muscles burning. It reminded me of how a simple, knee-grounded lunge stretch got me shaking like a leaf, 20 days after I was discharged from the hospital. So there I was, sheepishly indicating to Alberto that I need to rest, fighting hard against the tears aching to disperse from my eyes as I sat out the rest of the class. That mixed bag of feelings included disappointment, anger along with impatience to feel competent again, whatever that meant at the time ๐Ÿ˜ค

Around this same time, I started working with another clinical psychologist. I trusted her to trust me, that I can handle what comes from her taking me further and deeper in our sessions. Reflecting upon that decision, I see the pattern of seeking challenges despite knowing on some level, I may not have conditioned myself enough. The pattern of thinking there’s always something I’m not good enough to deserve anything. So I fight, I do the hard things, I ask the tough questions and I deal with the difficult emotions.

๐Ÿ‘€ Do you see the state that my nervous system was more used to than not? We seek what’s familiar, even when they are not good for us.

The interesting thing I discovered was that my intuition was working FOR me this whole time. Through the physical practices of pole dance, freestyle movement, and martial arts – I created a container where I can process and express myself without words. It isn’t about the fancy, schmancy highlight reels of movement practice, the badass slaying showcase of pole dancing, or the gritty-lit snippets of martial arts. It’s the lessons we integrate with self-actualization beyond the mats and off the pole. More likely than not, we already know the power we have within but may not have the courage (yet) to embrace it. We can fight to heal, when that fight is done with intention.

๐ŸŒ€ Re-born with purpose and intention

It’s much easier to travel the world than to journey inwards with curiosity, courage, and compassion. It sounds cliche – going through something like cancer, gave me full permission to hit that reset button across the board. In medical terms, a patient goes through day zero as they finish a week-long round of intensive chemotherapy and prepares for the bone marrow transplant (also known as stem cell transplant). A patient like myself was considered to have started a new cycle of life, the old bone marrow completely wiped out by chemo and new life transfused with the donor’s stem cells. Yesterday, I turned 4 years old since my rebirth ๐Ÿƒ

Today, my purpose is no longer just about me and my fight but what I can do to support others. They may be in a position I once was in, a teenager facing rape, unwanted pregnancy, attempting to take their own life – or someone affected by cancer, or someone chasing (and achieving) accolades yet feeling a lack of true purpose and validation, or someone who’s going through a difficult time adjusting in life. Practicing mindfulness from intentional actions makes them a whole lot more meaningful.

Back to the topic at the start of this post, I’ve been advocating for a jiu-jitsu based non-profit called Tap Cancer Out since my chemo days. Its founder Jon Thomas inspired me to think that all of our efforts count, no matter how small. During our first call, he even encouraged me to go ahead and fundraise however I can, regardless of using the TCO name. It’s about why we do what we do. I developed a lot more respect for him and his act of true altruism, rather than some organizations whose true intention is to market their brand disguised as “fundraising for a cause”. I align with the value of authenticity โค๏ธโ€๐Ÿ”ฅ

There’s more from my mind map of purpose, perhaps I’ll share them another time. Is that something you would want to read?

If you’ve read through to this point, I appreciate your energy and curiosity. I hope you’ve found the links I included in this post helpful, I’m glad you’re here ๐Ÿค—

I’ll see you on the mats somewhere, on Insta or come hang out with me on YouTube where I’ll be posting more.

๐Ÿ‘‰ Meanwhile, I implore you to join me in fundraising with Tap Cancer Out for cancer research and families with children with cancer. This campaign Global Grappling Day enables anyone outside of the United States to participate. You can find the fundraising page here or insert this url https://wecan.tapcancerout.org/fundraiser/4275759

There are many ways you can support – donate, share this story and donation link and/or organize an event with your academy! Here’s what Fabio at Tempo Jiu Jitsu and I did in Hong Kong last year, in collaboration with Mike Powers from Hybrid MMA, Caique Loyolla from SHBJJHK and Kowloon BJJ.

๐Ÿ‘‹ Live well and true, my friends.


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