Author Jess Van Zeil Article for Shameless Podcast

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This week’s newsletter column is written by Jess Van Zeil (@jessvanzeil)

Jess is a resilience coach, writer and speaker who survived stage four ocular melanoma. She is also the author of Eye Won, a memoir about thriving in the face of adversity.

I grew up believing that if I wanted to be happy, I needed to tick all the boxes of a “normal” life. I needed to have the nice car, the big house, the doting husband, the successful career, the beautiful children.

I had planned my entire life out so precisely that when I heard the three words “you have cancer”, I was utterly blindsided. My well-structured life-plan came crashing down.

I was 22 when I was told I had Conjunctival Melanoma, a rare and aggressive cancer. My doctor told me that my only choice was to remove my eye and close the eye-socket for good. He said it would look quite normal really, just “like having an armpit on my face”. (?!?!??!)

I didn’t want to look different. I just wanted my NORMAL life and begged for different treatment option —chemo, radiation, immunotherapy, anything!

His answer was simple: “without surgery, you will not be here in five years.”

I wanted to scream, but he’d played the life-or-death trump card and I knew nothing could change my reality.

When I got home that evening, I couldn’t wrap my head around the situation and how different my life would look, how different I would look. I went to my bedroom – the only place where I didn’t have to pretend to be brave – to contemplate my options.

Staring at my bedroom wall, I thought, “Can I really do this? And if so, do I really want to?” It was the first time I had ever contemplated if life was even worth living.

It didn’t take long for me to land on the answer: yes, life was worth living. Of course it was.

In that moment, I realised how much I loved my life and all the incredible opportunities I had already experienced at such a young age. I felt so grateful to be given a second chance, a lifeline that so many aren’t given. That sense of surety didn’t take away the fear – I was still terrified of losing my eye, and always standing out because of it – but it did bring me a sense of peace: this was the only way forward.

I could hide away and cut myself off from the world and their inevitable judgement, or I could embrace being different and do it on my own terms. Hiding felt like the easy option. I wanted to continue to live boldly and do exciting things, and that meant facing my fear.

To be different and to truly own it, I needed an unshakable level of confidence. I searched for strong female role models that I could look up to and emulate – women like P!NK and Miley Cyrus and Turia Pitt – who embrace what makes them unique. I decided that if I was going to look different, I might as well stand out in my own fun and quirky way — with bright, colourful eyepatches.

Wearing my eyepatches makes me feel bold, beautiful and fun. It’s been five years and I still love the feeling of fossicking through my collection of 50 dazzling eyepatches and perfectly matching one to my outfit. I also love not wearing an eyepatch at all, the freedom of embracing myself fully and wearing my scars with pride.

While it may seem shallow or frivolous, for me the glitter, sequins, ribbons and beads are how I took control of my situation. How I accepted myself as a woman, and as a survivor, and reintroduced myself to the world.

How I get to be different on my own terms.

Jess x


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