I’m Jess Van Zeil and I’m a survivor with a positive attitude!
At 21 I was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of cancer, Conjunctival Ocular Melanoma and I had to leave behind an overseas adventure that had barely begun to come back to Melbourne and fight one of the hardest battles I will ever endure. For 8 months everything seemed to be moving along easily and it looked like we had beaten it with a few localised surgeries. Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse and in the space of 2 months I went from being given the all clear to being told that the cancer had returned so aggressively that I had two options either remove the eye and close over the eye socket for good or give in to it and have less than 5 years to live. I was so angered and confused, “I’m so young, I just want to be normal, I don’t want to look like a freak!” I yelled at my doctor as I tried to grab onto any other option, chemo, radiation anything! “No.” was his only response.
Walking out of the hospital, I felt beaten and exhausted. For an entire day, I sat in bed, staring at a blank wall, replaying the conversation. My initial thought was that losing my eye was the worst thing that could ever happen to me, it felt like I had truly hit rock bottom but then I thought something positive has to come of this. As if a switch flipped in my mind, I realized that this was not going to beat me, I’d been given a second chance. I have my whole life ahead of me, I’ll put my fists up and fight. I woke up the next morning feeling powerfully positive and decided that not only was I going to wear an eyepatch and have the most incredible collection of eyepatches the world has ever seen.
Almost a year later, I was the healthiest I had ever been and my scans were looking clear. However, my life took another turn. Out of nowhere, I had a seizure. I will never forget the feeling as I lost control of my body and I honestly thought I was going to die. I woke up panicked and confused with my mum by my side.
And there I was back in hospital, faced with uncertainty. I thought my days of being poked and prodded by doctors, and analysed by scans had ended when I lost my eye. The results revealed one large tumor and several other small ones in my brain. My heart sank as I realized my battle with melanoma had only just begun.
The hardest day of my life was walking into brain surgery knowing that I may come out never being able to walk again. 8 hours out of surgery, due to a lot of determination I moved my leg, I got it an inch off the bed and I let out an excited squeal, it was in that moment I realised I really could do anything I put my mind to! From there I spent the next 7 months in and out of hospital, on treatment and learning to walk and eventually run again. It was an emotional journey filled with a lot of frustration but every day I focused on being grateful, for the people around me, the opportunities I have been given and the life I have lived.
My life has changed so much even since I first decided to pursue a career as a speaker at the start of 2016, I am still faced with hurdles BUT my scans have consistently shown that the cancer has been stable and unchanged since I started treatment in October. Now I am ready to shift my focus to helping others. I want to help everyone realise that there is always a positive to be found in every situation no matter how bad it may seem at the time. We can’t change the hand we have been dealt but we can certainly change the way we deal with it.
I’m living my life to the fullest by being powerfully positive & ridiculously resilient.