Strangers' Reunion's cancer-stricken chef: "I'm touched so many strangers showed up"

Mr Sebastian Tan with his mother, Madam Lee Lai Fen.
Mr Sebastian Tan with his mother, Madam Lee Lai Fen. PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

SINGAPORE (THE NEW PAPER) - He was surprised when his employers pitched the idea of a fundraiser to him, to help with his medical expenses for cancer treatment.

Mr Sebastian Tan, 26, the head chef of Strangers' Reunion cafe who had just been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, was flattered and thankful.

He was also wary of what the public reaction would be. Would they really turn up at the cafe, he wondered.

But his bosses, Mr Ryan Tan and Mr Mervin Pang, persuaded him, and he agreed.

 
 

I’m so touched that so many strangers turned up. I’m really grateful and I don’t know how I can thank all those who came to the cafe on Tuesday.

MR SEBASTIAN TAN

  • Over $20,000 raised in one day

  • The owners of Strangers’ Reunion posted a message on the cafe’s Facebook page on Sunday, saying that their head chef had Stage 4 lung cancer and that it had spread to his brain, bones and lymph nodes.

    They announced that Strangers’ Reunion and sister cafe Curious Palette at Prinsep Street will be raising funds by opening on Tuesdays — usually a rest day at the cafes — for at least eight weeks.

    The campaign was called “Save a Stranger”, and all the proceeds will go to fund the chef’s medical bills.

    The response on the first day of the initiative was so overwhelming that the cafe had to turn some customers away.

    More than 1,000 people turned up on Tuesday at Strangers’ Reunion and Curious Palette to raise funds for Mr Sebastian Tan’s cancer treatment.

    The goal is to raise at least $100,000 and in just one day, a fifth of that was collected.

    “On Tuesday, we generated over $20,000 over both cafes,” said Mr Ryan Tan, 30, one of the co-owners of Strangers’ Reunion.

    However, he hopes that people will still come down in the subsequent weeks.
    “We will continue with our efforts until we meet the target,” said Mr Tan.

The owners of Strangers’ Reunion posted a message on the cafe’s Facebook page on Sunday, saying that their head chef had Stage 4 lung cancer and that it had spread to his brain, bones and lymph nodes.

They announced that Strangers’ Reunion and sister cafe Curious Palette at Prinsep Street will be raising funds by opening on Tuesdays - usually a rest day at the cafes - for at least eight weeks.

The campaign was called “Save a Stranger”, and all the proceeds will go to fund the chef’s medical bills.

The response on the first day of the initiative was so overwhelming that the cafe had to turn some customers away.

More than 1,000 people turned up on Tuesday at Strangers’ Reunion and Curious Palette to raise funds for Mr Sebastian Tan’s cancer treatment.

The goal is to raise at least $100,000 and in just one day, a fifth of that was collected.

“On Tuesday, we generated over $20,000 over both cafes,” said Mr Ryan Tan, 30, one of the co-owners of Strangers’ Reunion.

However, he hopes that people will still come down in the subsequent weeks.
“We will continue with our efforts until we meet the target,” said Mr Tan.

On Tuesday, a day when they are usually closed, the cafe in Kampong Bahru Road and its sister outlet, Curious Palette at Prinsep Street, opened their doors to crowds, some of whom were already queueing to get in before the noon opening. The overwhelming response meant that some customers had to be turned away.

Posts promoting the event on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter had gone viral.

Speaking to The New Paper at his home on Wednesday night in Layang-Layang, Johor, just over an hour’s drive from the Woodlands Checkpoint, Mr Tan said bashfully: "I really didn't expect the response to be so good. I’m so touched that so many strangers turned up.

"I'm really grateful and I don’t know how I can thank all those who came to the cafe on Tuesday."

Despite the diagnosis, Mr Tan's attitude towards his situation is one of almost casual defiance.

He is determined more than ever to fight, and is positive he can beat the disease.

"God wants me to get it (lung cancer), I just have to deal with it and fight it," he said, shrugging.

This dark chapter of his life began in late November. He picked up an ankle injury playing basketball, and started having persistent hiccups.

At first, he was just annoyed. But it soon turned to worry when he could not even finish a sentence.

He decided to see a doctor, who diagnosed it as acid reflux.

When the hiccups did not stop, he went to the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) for a check up.

A scan of his lungs revealed white spots.

Doctors suspected tuberculosis and Mr Tan was immediately sent to an isolation ward.

Shocked

"I was shocked, but I took it calmly because at least tuberculosis can be treated, you know?" he said.

Unfortunately, the hammer blow came a week later.

"The doctors told me that I had Stage 4 lung cancer and it had spread to my bones, brain and lymph nodes," said Mr Tan, who was warded for 12 days.

"I took the news calmly. I think the week in isolation prepared me for the worst."

Even then, he told TNP, he was unable to bring himself to tell his parents.

"I asked my uncle to tell them,” he admitted. “I just couldn’t bear to see them cry."

In fact, it was a whole week before he could bring himself to speak to his parents over the phone. By then, both parties had come to terms with the diagnosis.

"We just talked about how we could move forward with it," said Mr Tan.

His mother, Madam Lee Lai Fen, 54, told TNP that her heart dropped when she first learnt of her son’s illness.

"I just broke down," said the housewife. "He is such a good son. I need to be strong because he is so strong. This way, he can be stress-free and just focus on getting better."

Mr Tan is the eldest of three children. Both his siblings, aged 25 and 20, are in Singapore.

His father, Mr Tan Chee Kiang, 54, is a driver.

Mr Tan, who worked as a chef in a restaurant in Kluang, Malaysia for a year, came to Singapore in 2013. The gig at Strangers’ Reunion was his first job in Singapore and he was the cafe’s first chef. The cafe had expanded to include a full kitchen in 2013.

Mr Tan said he went back to Johor on Sunday, a day after he was discharged. He is going to return to Singapore at the end of this month to continue his treatment at SGH.

He said he is aware that it is not going to be easy.

"I feel physically weak. I used to play a lot of basketball four to five times a week, now I can’t even run across the street without my legs cramping up," he said.

Despite the encouraging response to his employers' plea for help this week, Mr Tan, is still worried about his medical bills.

He does not think that the insurance that the cafe bought for him as a work permit holder is going to be enough.

But he knows every dollar collected at the fund-raiser will count and is grateful for it.

As for what his bosses did, he said, voice breaking: "I don’t think I can ever repay what they did for me."


About lung cancer

Lung cancer has been the most common type of cancer in the world for several decades.

According to data from the World Health Organisation, there were 1.8 million new cases of lung cancer worldwide in 2012.

Data from the Singapore Cancer Registry by the National Registry of Disease indicates that from 2010 to 2014, it was the second most common type of cancer among males in Singapore, behind colorectal cancer.

The National Cancer Centre states that the main cause of lung cancer is smoking.

But it has been recognised that more than a quarter of cases in Singapore occur in people who have never smoked or do not have any prior exposure to smoke.

The survival rate for lung cancer in males has improved, from 8.82 per cent in 2005-2009 to 10.39 per cent in 2010-2014.

The Cancer Research UK says that the stages of a cancer is used to describe the size of a cancer and how far it has grown.

Stage 4 cancer means that it has spread from where it has started to another organ of the body.

It is also called secondary or metastatic cancer.