Cancer survivor and fitness guru Emily Lola Tan is reinventing her career – now a sexual and mental health advocate, she wants to dispel the taboo of sex talk and guide future generations to better understand their own bodies and minds. 

A self-described ‘jack of all trades’, Emily Lola Tan is a Malaysian, Hong Kong-based fitness guru and entrepreneur with over 15 years of experience in the wellness industry as a performer, practitioner and teacher. A major figure in the fitness industry, she appeared on the TV series Body Blaze Get Fired Up on LiTV and has been featured in numerous magazines including CosmoBody HK, Core Magazine HK and The Star News Online. Then, early last year, she was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia, bringing her professional career to an abrupt halt. Forced to confront her new reality, she dropped all her professional commitments and took time out for herself, spurring a period of self-reflection, which she now sees as sorely needed. She talked to us about how facing her biggest challenge yet has led to a reevaluation of every aspect of her life, and a quest to start doing what really matters to her.

Fitness Warrior Emily Tan Reinvents Career After Cancer

Photo Credit: Aerial Arts Academy

“Cancer affected my career. If anything, it stopped the wheel. But, looking at it, I think it was meant to happen. I was so busy, running and running that, in a sense, I was actually a little lost,” says Emily, as she addresses the huge turn her life has taken. Previously a successful figure in the fitness industry, in addition to her many media appearances, she has taught, practiced and judged everything from aerial arts, Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu, parkour and mixed martial arts all over the world including Australia, Japan, Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau, Vietnam, Thailand, China, England and Malaysia. She helped start up the pioneering Malaysian pole dance studio Viva Vertical in 2007 and subsequently performed professionally in various aerial arts shows including at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts and PJ Live Arts Theatre in Malaysia, showcasing her incredible ability, finesse and strength in the air.

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“Now, a year after being diagnosed, and having dived deeper within myself, I realise I want to help people with their health, but beyond aesthetics. I want to focus on mental and sexual health, as compared to just the physical.” As far as she sees it, it’s here that she can add the most value to a sector she’s been active in already for over a decade. “You’ve got personal trainers and influencers, but they all fall into the physical health and fitness aspect. There’s a neglected part in mental and sexual health. I’m kind of lucky that I got to develop these aspects, and that’s what I want to work towards now.”

Fitness Warrior Emily Tan Shares Cancer Journey

Photo Credit (left): Dan Rosenthal

Although it was her illness that gave her time to reflect, Emily’s motivations for becoming an advocate for sexual and mental health are deeply rooted in her harrowing past. “When I was 15, I lost my virginity when I was drunk and didn’t have any memory of consenting to it. I felt very responsible for being in that situation. For the longest time, shame and guilt have been attached to that incident,” she explains. “He probably wasn’t informed any more than I was. If we’d had people guiding us and permission to speak about this more openly, I would have had a much better understanding of how to deal with things. That’s one of the reasons why mental and sexual health education, especially for young people, resonates deeply with me.”

Since then, Emily has sought professional help from psychologists to deal with the mental trauma caused by the incident, especially in Hong Kong, where she sees a lack of openness and support for those in similar situations.  For her, discovering pole dancing through her friend Vee, the Founder of Viva Vertical, was a way in which she reclaimed power over her own sense of sexual identity. “For such a long time, I didn’t realise why I gravitated towards pole. It was the only place I felt safe in expressing my sensuality without feeling like an object. For the longest time, I’ve always felt like sex was a chore, a performance for the other person. It was always a service for others. So, I was pretty much prostituted without making any money from it,” she recounts.

Fitness Warrior Emily Tan Reinvents Career After Cancer

Photo Credit: Cherry Li

For her, the damage of that state of mind was huge, and exercise has played a huge role in teaching her how to overcome its effects. “Despite not feeling like I can love my body now that it’s been so crushingly destroyed from chemo, how I felt then, at 15 years of age, was more challenging for my mind and my ego. It doesn’t matter what type of body you have in terms of body shape; you can leverage it to your advantage. In Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, it’s not about how strong you are, but how can you use your existing strength to handle your opponent. You use that strength mentally, to not let your emotions take over and panic.”

Today, Emily is recovering well from intensive chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. Recently, she completed her first live talk recounting her experience as a cancer survivor at an event hosted by Joint Dynamics, a physiotherapy clinic in Hong Kong. She has also made guest appearances on Pacific Muscle Chats and Hong Kong Confidential to share her experiences in mental and sexual health as well as dealing with cancer, and has been featured in articles by South China Morning Post and Liv Magazine. She has big plans in the pipeline for an interview-style podcast series, speaking to people from different walks of life about the topic of resilience. To those coming of age and struggling to find a direction in life, she feels the sum of her experiences have given her a unique outlook. “Whatever experiences we go through, no matter how hard or painful they are, how amazing they are, there’s always something to take from them,” she urges. “On the other side of fear is courage. What you fear most now might be what you loved in the past, but that doesn’t mean you can’t let it go. If you have fear, you have courage. You just need to see it. Grab it!” 

Banner Photo Credit: Dan Rosenthal

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