Dealing with “The Big C” is not something you expect on your Big OE, but that’s the situation our Live The Dreamer Jess Weller found herself in. It was 2013, and Jess was living the Kiwi OE life – 27 years old, living in London, picking up relief teaching work where she could, sleeping on friends’ couches, partying and exploring. Then, one day in May, she realised something wasn’t right.
“My boobs were hard and sore, and I could feel something like a lump of gristle in my left breast – it turned out to be an aggressive form of cancer called Her2-positive, and it was at Stage 3 when I caught it.” For many people, such an earth-shattering diagnosis would likely call any future adventures abroad to an early halt, but not so for Jess.
“I had wanted to be overseas for so long, I wasn’t going to give that up for anything. The last resort was to catch a plane home, but it honestly never occurred to me once. I carried on working full-time through chemo treatment; in fact, the day after I was diagnosed I went for a job interview and got a job teaching art at a Catholic boys’ school.” And she kept travelling. Every three weeks, she would book in another trip abroad, eventually making her way around Portugal, Prague, Munich, Paris and the south of France. “That was my reward, I always had something to look forward to.” After eight rounds of chemotherapy to shrink the tumour, radiation therapy, specialised drugs and surgeries, Jess was finally in recovery. And she had a burning desire to make a difference. “I started volunteering and doing presentations to groups of young girls. In the room at my very first presentation was the speaking coordinator for TedX SquareMile, so I ended up giving a talk there called How Cancer Gave Me Purpose. That was a really cool experience.”
Jess returned home around Christmas time in 2014, aged 29, and continued to fundraise and travel around to conferences in the US and Australia to educate and raise awareness of breast cancer. Then she stumbled upon Festival for the Future online, and bought a ticket on the spot. “I just thought ‘this sounds like a bit of me’ and it totally blew my mind open. Weeks later I was still on that hum, and decided to apply for the Live the Dream programme,” she says.
“It was actually quite life changing, being around such amazing people who believe they can make a difference, and knowing I’m not the only one trying to save the world. It was inspiring to be around such an epic crew of people, we really fed off each other and the support. It was scary but amazing to do my own thing and be 100 per cent supported and encouraged and be able to keep going once that programme finished.” Jess’ venture, The WELLer Network, is all about “supporting healthy conversations that can save your life”. It puts information and contacts in the hands of young New Zealanders so they know what they are dealing with when it comes to cancer. Although Jess’ own story involves breast cancer, she is keen to expand wider to include all types of cancer, and continue building the support network.
“Talking about this sets my soul on fire, and it’s so important we do talk about it because we’re so afraid of cancer. I try to use a little bit of humour whenever I do; I went to a school the other day and had 200 girls giggling and laughing. You never know how an audience will respond but if you have a bit of a laugh you can shine a light on it and have a really healthy conversation and that’s the whole point of what I’m trying to do.” At the moment, Jess is working for the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation, doing school visits, carrying on the conversations. She is still building up The WELLer Network in the background, and if you want to know more you can visit her on her blog, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, or email her directly.