Two years ago, Peter Mac patient Jess Van Zeil was learning to walk again after surgery to remove a brain tumour. Now she’s in training to tackle one of the world’s most challenging hikes, the Kokoda Track.

Speaking to the vivacious Jess Van Zeil, it’s hard to believe the challenges she’s faced in her 24 years.

Diagnosed with Conjunctival Ocular Melanoma at age-21, an overseas adventure was cut short and she returned to Melbourne for treatment. 

Since then Jess has had surgery to remove her eye and then a year later to remove a brain tumour - leaving her to learn to walk again.  

Fast-forward to 2018 and Jess is ready to embark on a journey to Papua New Guinea where she will tackle the Kokoda Track. 


Why have you decided to do the Kokoda track?

I have always been very adventurous and when I finished high-school in 2011 and took a whole year after that off and went travelling. I was really into scuba diving, I did the world's highest bungee jump, I skydived - all the ridiculous things.

So when I was diagnosed, it sort of took a lot of those things away. I'm no longer allowed to scuba dive and I started to feel like a lot of things had been stripped away from me and taken out of my grasp.

Then I started to feel really fit and healthy and thought one of the things I really wanted to do my whole life was to go and climb Mount Everest. I wanted to summit it but decided to go a bit lower and go for Base Camp. But when I proposed that to my doctor, he said it would be a disaster as altitude sickness is bad enough for people who are in full health. That really broke my spirits for a few days and I walked away from that thinking, there goes half of my bucket list.

But then I started looking at things a little more clearly after a few days and thought there are actually a few more hikes I wanted to do and the one that stuck out was Kokoda as it's just as hard. In September it will be two years from when I had to learn to walk again. So I was like, it's a pretty good way to mark that moment by going on a massive hike. It's going to be challenging but I'm excited. 

How are you preparing for such a challenging hike?

My boyfriend and I have been hiking every week and we are going to the gym three times a week to build-up cardio and strength. When I had the brain surgery the location of the tumour was on the motor cortex so that’s why I had to learn to walk again. Then I had to learn to run and it’s coming along more and more now that I'm training and getting serious with it. I actually have to consciously think about a lot of things in order to run, making sure that I'm not tripping up over my feet and that my technique is correct.

Building the strength has been hardest part as I had a lot of muscle loss when I was in hospital for so long. So I’ve been getting that base level of strength back so that I can tolerate such a big walk. 

What else is on your list of adventures?

Before I had my seizure and stage-four diagnosis I was actually training for half marathons so that will be next year’s focus to do one of those and probably Tough Mudder.

I'm just keeping myself fit and finding the things out there that give me fulfilment but not pushing my body into a situation that is too far and really risking my life. I'm 24, I'm a cancer survivor, the last thing I want to do is then stupidly take on something that is really going to risk my life because then, what is the point?

You’re well known for your incredible eye-patches. Are you taking any special ones with you to PNG?

I don't know if I will wear them. I found training with an eye-patch gets a bit sweaty and uncomfortable. I might have some for the start and the end but I think I am going to hike without it. That in itself is quite empowering.

The eye-patch has become a big comfort zone. It's twofold, as it deters questions - and that's quite nice - as people look at it and create whatever story they want in their head. When I don't wear one there's a lot more questions. I don't mind questions when they are coming from a place of interest but sometimes they're not and there can be this arrogance where people feel they have the right to know your entire story.

When are you doing Kokoda and how can people follow your trip?

We start hiking on the 24th of September. People can follow me on Instagram, Facebook and my website

Jess is a patient at ONTrac at Peter Mac Victorian Adolescent & Young Adult Cancer Service. It provides a multidisciplinary team of healthcare professionals who work alongside cancer specialists at Peter Mac and beyond to ensure all aspects of a young person’s health and wellbeing are given attention both during treatment and in the years beyond.

To find out more about clinical services for young people, see ONTrac at Peter Mac Victorian Adolescent & Young Adult Cancer Service