Cancer ate my eye — then I fought at least five brain tumors

A young woman had her left eye removed to treat an aggressive ocular cancer and then had to fight at least five brain tumors.

Jess Van Zeil, 25, was devastated when she was diagnosed with ocular melanoma and doctors said her only chance of survival was an operation.

Surgeons removed her eye and eyelid and closed off the socket, and inspirational Van Zeil took it in her stride – matching her eye patches to her outfits and heading back to college.

But around a year later, Van Zeil had a seizure at home which alerted doctors to at least five cancerous tumors or spots on her brain.

Once again she battled for her life, and after brain surgery and $84,000 of immunotherapy treatment, she beat the disease once again.

She crowdfunded to pay for her treatment and has now successfully campaigned to get it added to the “government-funded” list.

Van Zeil from Melbourne, Australia, said: “The thought of seeing myself without an eye for the first time was quite daunting.”

“The nurse and doctor that removed the bandaging were incredible and made me feel so comfortable.”

“I was shocked at how ‘normal’ I looked.”

“It wasn’t gory it was clean and in its own way beautiful.”

“I don’t wear a patch at home or around my friends – the main reason now is I actually enjoy my unique little fashion statement and have fun matching the patch to my outfit!”

“But when I was diagnosed with the brain tumor I was in shock.”

“I was meant to be finishing my degree and moving on with my life. I had plans for my future and I was not ready for all of that to get side lined.”

“I went into the operation with a 5 percent chance of losing all movement on the right side and 10 percent chance of long term weakness on the right.”

“I spent the first eight hours after surgery just focused on getting the right side of my body moving, even just an inch – because I knew if I could just do that my dream of running again one day was in reach.”

“Two years post brain surgery my life is completely different.”

“I own my own business as a resilience expert, speaker and coach, where I empower youth and young adults to become more resilient so that when they are faced with challenges in their school, work or home lives they have the skills and tools available to thrive.”

“I believe that too many people are just surviving through life, and having resilience and a deep confidence in yourself to overcome challenges, is the stepping stone to creating a life full of excitement, fulfillment and joy.”

Van Zeil was diagnosed with conjunctival ocular melanoma in January 2015 after she noticed a red spot on the white of her eye.

She was against getting her eye removed at first, but changed her mind when doctors said: “If you don’t have the surgery you won’t be here in five years.”

“I went home and just sat in my room and stared at the wall and tried to comprehend this situation I was being handed,” she said.

“I had two main stories of how my life could play out just running through my head.”

“One was Jess the 22-year-old freak – the girl who was going to retreat to her bedroom, would never be loved, never be accepted, who needed to hide herself from the world in order to avoid being judged.”

“Or option two, powerfully positive Jess, the confident, fun loving, bubbly young woman who is surrounded by love and support.”

“By the next day I had come to the conclusion that I had to do the surgery because I was being handed a second chance at life and I refused to waste it.”

She had the two-hour surgery to remove her eye in October 2015 and got back to her normal life.

But in September 2016 she had a seizure at home after noticing her little toe on her right foot was witching.

The spasm moved up her leg and soon she couldn’t breathe and fell unconscious, convulsing for three minutes in front of her worried mom.

Tests revealed the cancer had spread to her brain and a tumor had hemorrhaged.

Doctors couldn’t say exactly how many tumors were there — because some were just 1 milometer in size — but they estimate she had between five and eight other cancerous spots.

A team of 40 doctors recommended dual-immunotherapy treatment — two different drugs at the same time to boost the body’s natural defenses to fight cancer.

It wasn’t covered by the government health insurance, and Van Zeil and her supporters raised $85,000 to cover her treatment.

After the op, she spent three weeks learning to walk, and then a few months learning to run again.

Now, her tumors have not grown any more and Van Zeil is a resilience expert, author, speaker and coach.

Her campaign saw the treatment added to the Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme (PBS) – the Australian Government’s subsidized prescription drugs program.

Van Zeil finished her degree in nutrition in 2017 and completed a 60 mile trek in Papua New Guinea — called the Kokoda Track — in December.

“My first steps on the track marked exactly two years from when I was taking my first steps in the hospital,” she said.

“This is a massive milestone for me and stands as proof to myself that cancer can’t stop me from living my dream life, and that I am capable of achieving anything I set my mind to.”

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