Jess Van Zeil
When Jess Van Zeil was a student at Mount Eliza Primary School, she set her sights on representing Australia at the Olympics. The young judo star had no idea the goal-setting and visualisation skills she learnt as a junior athlete would hold her in good stead for the battle of her life that was to come.
In 2015 at 21, Jess was diagnosed with conjunctival ocular melanoma, a very rare and aggressive form of cancer. “I was overseas at the time on my gap year visiting my dad, who lives in South Africa. I saw an eye specialist two days after landing in South Africa and had surgery the day after that.”
“Eye Won” by Jess Van Zeil
Jess feels lucky to have fitted in a road trip of the South African coastline with her best friend for five weeks before receiving a formal diagnosis. “The oncologist was extremely blunt. He said to me: ‘You need to know melanoma kills. You’ve been very lucky to catch this early, but it is a cancer that kills if it spreads’.”
With her trip cut short, Jess came home to Australia, a world leader in melanoma research, where treatments available were superior to what was available in South Africa. After a brief reprieve from the cancer after some localised surgeries back in Australia, nothing could have prepared Jess for what came next. The cancer returned a few months later and Jess was faced with deciding whether to have her eye removed and the eye socket closed over, or to have less than five years to live. Jess’s initial thought was that losing an eye was the worst thing that could ever happen, but then a realisation struck her. “It was as if a switch flipped in my mind – I realised I’d been given a second chance. I decided I wasn’t going to let it beat me . . . and I’d have the most incredible collection of eyepatches ever.”
Unfortunately, a year later with no warning or past history, Jess had a seizure. Scans revealed cancer had spread to her brain. “I was diagnosed with stage four cancer in September 2016. I was lucky because of the treatment available at that time. If I’d been diagnosed even the year prior, my prognosis would have been six to 16 weeks.”
To say Jess has overcome more than her share of adversity is an understatement. In her book Eye Won, Jess shares her story so that other people facing hard things feel less alone and have hope. In her work as a speaker, Jess shares her PATCH method for building what she calls “holistic resilience”. Jess isn’t a fan of the ‘just push through’ brand of resilience; instead, PATCH stands for Positive, Adventure, Thankful, Creative and Honour. These are the pillars of holistic resilience. When it comes to being thankful and having a gratitude practice, she says: “I always underline the word ‘practice’. It’s not something you can do willy-nilly and hope it will make a difference. I do it every single day.
“Two years after I took my first step in the hospital when I was relearning to walk after brain surgery, my partner and I completed the Kokoda Track. It feels difficult to see what life will be on the other side of COVID but there’s going to be amazing opportunities and amazing things come of this time. Life feels different right now but it doesn’t mean it’s going to be this way forever.”
For more information about Jess’s work as a speaker or to buy her book, visit her website at www.jessvanzeil.com