Entrepreneurial Stories

He survived cancer twice and transformed his business in the face of death

“You have stage two Hodgkin’s Lymphoma,” the doctor pronounced.

Having just crossed a month after his 33rd birthday in June 2014, it came as a shock to Marcus Tan. What was a routine visit to the GP for cough and sore throat became a diagnosis of a potentially terminal disease from a lump on the lower part of his neck.

“I had felt extremely distraught and worried for my future,” Marcus shared. “Cancer for me seemed like a farfetched disease, infecting people who smoked, consumed too much alcohol, led unhealthy lifestyles, or had symptoms of over indulgence. I had none of these. So how did cancer suddenly flare up in my body?”

A positive outlook

In 2014, Marcus was on his way to take over Conspec Builders, his family’s landscaping business, as its managing director. The company is based in Shah Alam in Selangor, Malaysia.

He was also involved in running operations for the business since 2008, which required him to work long hours and travel extensively to off-site locations.

Despite the diagnosis, Marcus focused on what was at stake. “I had to gather strength as I had three young children—the youngest only one and a half years old at that time. I also had my wife, parents, and 55 employees depending on me for their livelihood.”

He also took confidence in positive facts. “Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is highly curable, with a 90 percent success rate for remission at stage 2A and a 95 percent chance of no relapse within five years. Moreover, the chemotherapy was mild and had minimal side effects.”

He also cited the times his children were healed miraculously and believed he would be healed as well. His daughter was in the ICU for 83 days because of a life-threatening birth defect. His two sons also had miraculous recoveries—one from a hernia operation and the other from a ruptured placenta in his mother’s womb.

“All these personal experiences reinforced my faith in Jesus that He will take care of all aspects of my life through my treatment.”

Revamping the company’s culture and management style

Despite news of the diagnosis, Conspec continued in its usual operations, where Marcus had a hand in everything.

“I was still doing day-to-day operations during my treatment. The company was previously run in a very typical family-owned SME fashion, where key roles were filled by family members with no emphasis on talent development, strategy goals, and business and marketing strategies. There was no regular meetings among the staff to talk about [it].”

In November 2014, Marcus went to Singapore for radiotherapy treatment for four weeks. The business was left to run on autopilot and, as a result, many things were left unattended to.

This urged him to fast-track manager development. Prior years of high staff turnover also stoked him to make more initiatives: creating an employee incentive scheme,  increasing by five times the spend on HR activities, hiring management consultants to conduct internal training, planning and tracking the company’s progress, and mentoring team leaders to take over the daily operations.

He also built a new 30,000 sq ft headquarters-cum-storage facility and a 40,000 sq ft manufacturing facility.

Free from cancer

Marcus initially planned to recover in nine months. But he responded so well to treatment that he was in the office five days after his first chemotherapy session. He fully recovered from cancer in December 2014.

While most cancer patients take a year to recuperate, Marcus was able to run 5 km nonstop just one month after his last treatment.

“2015 became a year of abundance and exponential growth in the areas of finance, career, my Christian faith, and social life. Doctors Peter and Abby, who are now directors of my board, were also introduced to me the same year. They began to coach me in the areas of business, faith, and health and have been a positive influence in my life ever since.”

But cancer returned with a vengeance

On his one-year anniversary checkup, Marcus was anxious. Because he looked so healthy, his doctor didn’t see the need to scan him. But Marcus insisted.

“The moments leading up to the ultrasound felt like waiting for the judge to pronounce his verdict on my case to see if I was guilty or innocent. […] My heart sank as I knew I was pronounced with a death sentence once again.”

The findings were confirmed a week later. “My reaction upon hearing the results was very different from the first time because it was unbelievable,” he said. “I had a statistical 95 percent chance of being free from cancer and why did I have to fall under the 5 percent who had a relapse and within the short time of one year?”

Standing together as a company

Disbelief, uncertainty, and sadness filled Marcus’s heart. He called for an emergency meeting with his team leaders.

“During that meeting, I poured out my heart to them,” he said. “I could not hold back tears of disappointment and the fear of uncertainty as I announced my cancer relapse. There was not one dry eye in the room that day and every one of them gave me the reassurance that they will give their best to take care of everything during my treatment.”

The second time was much more severe than the first. Marcus had to undergo a very strong treatment and was not able to resume his duties at work as easily as before.

The treatment caused many side effects: shingles, nausea, and a stomach virus that caused diarrhea almost 20 times a day.

“High fever rendered me almost lifeless. I literally stared at death in the face.”

Changing his life perspective

During treatment, many of his family, friends, and staff came to visit him. Many also donated blood, as Marcus’s blood readings went haywire from the side effects of the treatment.

It was in this moment of vulnerability and weakness that Marcus learned his greatest lesson:

“I am not in control of my life. I am not a hero. I need the people around me. Seeing the care and concern of my family, friends, and my colleagues caused my heart to change. I had to change and value each person as individuals and not as an instrument in my selfish grand plan to be a successful entrepreneur.”

But like a miracle, Marcus once again beat the odds and fully recovered in May 2016.

Victories during the trials

As with the first bout of cancer, everything in the company seemed to run smoothly in Marcus’s absence. The company experienced extremely healthy cash flow, with cash reserves at an all-time high. The company had also secured the most jobs in its history in terms of contract value during his six months of treatment.

Conspec has since attracted the attention of the media and has won industry recognitions such as SME 100 Fast Moving Companies, Brand Laureate Best SME Brands in Malaysia, The Star Outstanding Business Awards, and an honorary award by the Institute of Landscape Architects Malaysia.


Marcus credits these awards to what he has learned from his two-time ordeal with cancer:

  • Humility is the greatest virtue, and one person alone cannot achieve success.
  • People are our most valuable asset, so we need to treat them with generosity and reward them what is due.
  • Do everything with sincerity and honesty.
  • Money is not everything. Be wise in spending and reward generously.
  • We need fitness, family, and finance to be successful.
  • The company is God’s business and I am only His steward.

Ending thoughts

For those reading this article who may be struggling with a disease, whether terminal or those affecting your abilities to function, Marcus has this advice:

“Remain strong and positive. Hold your head up high and take each day at a time. Do it for your loved ones, your friends, your colleagues, and everyone who cares for you because they are also suffering alongside you, as they see you going through your journey with disease. We may win the battle or lose it, but there are lessons to be learned from the journey. Let us be able to use these lessons to change the lives of the people around us, knowing that we have left a positive impact on their lives.”

This article first appeared on Tech in Asia.