Winning against diabetes

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01 Jul 2018 | PEOPLE

Winning against diabetes

// STORY KOH ENG BENG 
// PHOTOS CHAI SIAN LIANG & COURTESY OF CPT (NS) MELVIN TAN

English Melayu
Each morning, CPT (NS) Tan does hundreds of push-ups, chin-ups and squats at his neighbourhood fitness corner, wearing a 10kg weighted vest or dip belt with loads of up to 25kg

Diabetes is incurable but CPT (NS) Melvin Tan managed to "reverse" his condition, weaning himself off jabs and medication.

He had just obtained his Master of Business Administration from the prestigious Columbia University in New York, and was looking forward to starting a new job with Deutsche Bank AG in Hong Kong. Life was looking bright for CPT (NS) Tan.

But just days before he was about to fly to the London office to begin training, he received devastating news: his preemployment medical check-up showed that he had diabetes. This was in 2011.

Diabetes occurs when the body doesn't produce any or enough insulin, leading to an excess of sugar in the blood. It can lead to heart attack, stroke and kidney failure.

"I was only 31 then - most people are diagnosed (with diabetes) at about 60," said CPT (NS) Tan, father of a nine-year old girl and seven-year-old boy.

"To me, that meant I had a high probability of dying much earlier (than my peers)… If I wanted a reasonable chance of living to 70, I had to figure out a strategy to maximise the probability."

This lifelong disease usually has to be kept under control with medicine or insulin injections. But CPT (NS) Tan managed to put his diabetes in remission through a strict but sustainable exercise and diet regime. Today, he no longer needs insulin jabs or medication.

Overcoming a sedentary lifestyle

Over a cup of iced kopi-o kosong at his neighbourhood coffee shop, the 38-year-old fund manager shared that he used to be fit in his 20s, and even took part in marathons.

But lack of exercise due to punishing working hours - from 7am to 10pm - and an overindulgence in beer and pizza caused his weight to balloon over the years.

"I realised I needed to make drastic diet changes," said CPT (NS) Tan, who now tips the scale at 69kg (16kg lighter than his heaviest at 85kg!).

He strictly avoids carbohydrates. This means having wonton mee without noodles, or chicken rice minus the rice.

To satisfy his cravings, he keeps to a "carbo budget" of a serving of dark chocolate and whisky or wine each day, and two tablespoons of nasi lemak or bee hoon each week.

"I also allow myself (to have) two seeds of durian - and to lick a mango seed - each year," he chuckled. "If I'm doing this until 80, I must be able to have ‘cheat food'!"

Simple but effective

His exercise regime is simple. Each morning, for 30 to 45 minutes, CPT (NS) Tan does hundreds of push-ups, chin-ups and squats at his neighbourhood fitness corner. To add intensity, he wears a 10kg weighted vest or dip belt with loads of up to 25 kg.

After a year of painstaking effort, his diabetes was kept under control, but he still needed insulin jabs. The final push came when he set a goal to join his National Service (NS) unit for Exercise Wallaby the following year in 2013.

His medical status had been downgraded to Physical Employment Standard (PES) E.  As long as he needed insulin injections, he could not take part in any overseas training. So he intensified his efforts, and soon his doctor diagnosed that his diabetes was in remission.  

Security insurance

So off he went to Australia for Exercise Wallaby - he wanted to see how his unit's battle plan would pan out on the ground, in a large-scale drill involving elements from the air, land and sea.

Then a deputy operations officer in the Armour formation, his role was to develop battle plans for the troops.

He had completed his mandatory 10-year Operationally Ready NS this year but will continue to serve under the Reservists On Voluntary Extended Reserve Scheme.

"In the end, the Singapore Armed Forces is an insurance policy (for Singapore). Most of the time, you buy an insurance policy hoping that you don't have to use it. But if a crisis hits, you better be sure that the insurance company is able to pay out."

Spreading hope

Complacency can be fatal, and to avoid this, CPT (NS) Tan continues to keep up with his strict exercise regime and diet.

"The probability of diabetes returning is high. If I'm not careful, I may not be able to fight it off if it comes back."

He wants to share his story to show other diabetic patients that it's never too late. "Diabetes is incurable, but you can stabilise it and lead a productive life… I want to tell people that you can not only control diabetes, but it's actually possible to reverse it." 

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