Skin Diaries This is Brave

This is Brave: Jess Van Zeil

As long as I could remember, I’d had a red spot on the white of my left eye. In my late teens, it started to grow, change and become raised and irritating. After years of following this up with my general practitioner, I finally got referred to an ophthalmologist when I was 20. He did a biopsy, which came back benign (non-cancerous). Six months later, three very dark spots that resembled a skin mole grew on the same eye. I had the second biopsy done on these new spots and was officially diagnosed with conjunctival ocular melanoma at the age of 21 in January 2015.

When I was told I had ocular melanoma, the room became blurry, an overwhelming sea of emotion and fear came over me and drowned out everything he said following my diagnosis. Cancer, on my eye?! Can that even happen? Isn’t cancer for old people? Is my life basically over now? It had barely begun!

I felt nauseous, trapped and confused. I didn’t feel or look sick so how could my life potentially be on the line? I wondered how long it would be until this illness caught up with me and actually made me look and feel unwell. However, a few weeks passed, and nothing really changed.

I had a lot of check-ups until they informed me that my treatment plan would be watching and waiting. No chemo, no radiation, nothing. I was so confused. Grateful, but confused. It almost felt anticlimactic, such a scary diagnosis and yet all I needed to do was see my oncologist every six weeks.

Six months went by during which I had more biopsies which all came back benign. We started to relax, my appointments became less frequent and life went back to normal. Then, what felt like it happened overnight, I noticed five new spots on the white of my eye and a small lump underneath my eyelid in August 2015. I went to my general practitioner first and he called my ophthalmic oncologist’s office right away. I was booked in to see him a few days later.

I could tell my oncologist felt unsettled at this appointment, he didn’t like what he was seeing and booked another biopsy. All the new spots he removed came back positive for malignant melanoma. This was when the tune changed. Things escalated quickly and I was being told I was going to have to lose my eye and eyelids, and that they’d close over the socket for good in order to save my life.

I still remember the pain and anger I felt in the moment. The very normal life I had imagined for myself—the typical, all-American family life with a husband, a house and a great career—was ripped away in that moment. I went home that night and thought about my options. Very quickly, I realised that I would do whatever it took to save my life. The only real choice I had was whether or not I’d let this break me. Would I hide away from the world or would I find a way to embrace it?

Well, within a few days, I decided I wanted to embrace this new look and make it my own. I went online and found beautiful, bright eye-patches that were going to be my fabulous new fashion accessory. It took me less than 24-hours to embrace my diagnosis and the opportunities it presented.

On October 9th, 2015 I had an exenteration—complete surgical removal of my eye and the contents of my eye socket. The first few days I was in a lot of pain. I couldn’t keep food down and I slept in 90-minute cycles. On the fifth day I had the dressing taken off and got to see my new look for the first time. To best describe how I felt, I’ve taken an excerpt from my book Eye Won: Powerfully Positive, Ridiculously Resilient

“I almost bounded out of bed to see my new face. I expected to see someone foreign staring back at me, but I saw my bright familiar smile, my freckled cheeks, my button nose, my on-point eyebrows. The only difference, there was one eye staring back not two.”

I analyzed my face and saw a soft beauty in it and my smile brightened as I accepted the woman in the mirror as me. I silently told her that she was beautiful, strong, courageous and most importantly…still me. I tried out my new eye-patches and explored the world a little, embracing my new fashion accessory.

Life quickly went back to normal. Within a month, I was working, driving, studying and socializing. The only thing that had changed was I had a fun new accessory, my eye patch. Most importantly, it looked like we had eradicated the cancer! While the surgery had been challenging both physically and emotionally, I was grateful we’d done it and I could go back to living life as a twenty-something-year-old woman.

On September 9th, 2016 I remember sitting at home with my mum planning out how we were going to celebrate my first annual eye-versary when I had a seizure. I was raced to the hospital and told that the melanoma had spread to my brain and had become Stage IV Melanoma. My heart sank, I knew that everything I had faced up until this point had been child’s play in comparison to what I was about to face.

After having brain surgery to remove the cancer, I had to relearn how to walk and start an ipilimumab plus nivolumab (Ipi/Nivo) blend to prevent the development of more tumors. Looking back on that time, I know I felt terror. To get through it, I focused on what I was grateful for, the blessings I had and the things that made me smile.

More than anything else, the overwhelmingly beautiful feeling of gratitude is the first emotion that comes to mind when I think of my cancer journey.

Three and a half years after my brain surgery and I am thankfully still stable. I have such a beautiful appreciation for life and have accomplished so much. I completed my university degree during my treatment for Stage IV Melanoma. I hiked the Kokoda Trail in 2018, exactly two years after taking my first steps. I wrote and published my book Eye Won, which became a best seller in October 2019. And I got engaged to my incredible fiancé!

Cancer has taught me so much about myself and about the world. While it’s not something I would ever wish on anyone else, I would not be the woman I am today without it. For that I am grateful.

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2 Comments

  • Tiffany

    This beautiful article brought me to tears. Thank you for sharing! Jess’s story displays an incredible amount of bravery and strength. I wish her and her family all the best!

  • Cynthia

    Jess, you are truly an inspiration to me. My husband was diagnosed with ocular melanoma and had his eye removed around the same time as you. You gave us so much hope during that time and you continue to do so! Thank you ❤️

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