What is your background and what inspired you to write, Eye Won?
I was diagnosed with conjunctival ocular melanoma, a very rare form of melanoma that was on the white part of my eye, when I was 21. At first it seemed very easy to treat but 8 months later at the age of 22 the melanoma had started to aggressively spread beyond the eye and into the eyelid, I was told then it was lose my eye or my life. The surgery was drastic, not only did I lose my eye but my eyelids as well and they closed over the eye socket for good, leaving me with limited prosthetic options. It was then when I decided If I was going to look different and be different I would be doing it on my own terms and so I went and found the brightest, funnest eye patches you can dream of and embraced them as my very own personalized accessory.
11 months later, at the age of 23, I was diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma with brain mets. I had to have brain surgery and was one of the first to be treated with ipi/nevo. Thankfully I have been stable for 3 and a half years now.
Eye Won was the book and the resource I wish I had when I was going through my journey. I felt so alone and often like I was scrambling to find inspiration from people who had been through something similar to what I was and was thriving on the other side. It doesn’t just cover my journey but it gives you, the reader the skills and tools I used to get through it all.
On the “My Story” section of your website, your first line is: I’m Jess Van Zeil and I’m a survivor with a positive attitude. How has having a positive attitude continued to be a touchstone for you?
My top values have always been around joy, gratitude and love. When I got diagnosed I did not want to lose my love and excitement for life. For me this positive attitude was what kept me going, finding the golden nuggets of joy, gratitude, appreciation, laughter even on the toughest days made it bearable. Its not at all about bottling up or dismissing the difficult emotions like anger, frustration, sadness, anxiety, grief etc. but rather about not letting myself live in them.
I am extremely conscious around my language, the words you speak create the world you live in. I practice gratitude daily, and on the days when I am feeling down I bomb the pages in my journal with gratitude. I do something every single day that will make me smile.
I had these habits in place when I was diagnosed so for me it was easy to maintain and its beautiful to recognise that when I look back on what is easily the most challenging time in my life, the first thing I feel is gratitude for the doctor, nurses, family members, sunsets and all the beauty I experienced during that time, rather than the challenges.
Tell us about your advocacy work in inspiring people to be mindful of their sun exposure…
I think its so important to help people, especially in my age group realise that they are at risk and there is so much they can do as far as prevention and early detection. I speak highly of brands who have 50 UPF clothing, for so long I just avoided going outside because I was terrified of doing something wrong and getting burned, but I was miserable, I have and always will be an outdoorsy person so learning to manage that with sunscreen, hats, sunglasses, protective clothing has been life changing.
I also get a skin check at least once a year and promote that everyone does the same.
I share my story often through social media platforms, on stages, panels, interviews to spread this message.
What surprises you about people’s misconceptions about sun safety?
As far as misconceptions things like tanning oil with spf are seen as safe, or on that that building a tan is safe its only burning that causes damage.
That people who have darker skin cant get melanoma- did you know that Bob Marley died from a melanoma that went undetected underneath his toenail.
That it wont happen to them.
The biggest surprise, and one that shocked me is that melanoma is the number one cancer killer in Australians aged 15-39 years of age.
What’s next for you with your speaking engagements and career?
My passion is building resilience, a skill and tool that is so versatile and necessary for the fast paced and ever changing world we live in today.
My goal is to ensure that nobody else feels lost alone when they are facing adversity. Through my business and my work as a motivational speaker, author and resilience & life coach I get to do this daily. I created the P.A.T.C.H (Positive, Adventure, Thankful, Create, Honour) method to building resilience (I go into great detail of this method and provide practical tools to implement in my book, Eye Won) which was formed with my own experience and extensive research.
I regularly speak on stages across Australia to audiences that range from primary schools to corporate groups and each speech is personally tailored to the groups needs, focus and desired outcomes.
I also have some really exciting projects in the pipeline that I’m not allowed to speak openly about just yet but they will be announced on my Instagram @jessvanzeil in the coming months.
I feel so blessed to not only love what I do but to be able to make a difference and empower people around the world to build their resilience.
For more info on Jess and her work, go here
To see the book Jess wrote, go here