Aussie student diagnosed with terminal brain cancer shares the warning signs she ignored for months

Jess Giczey
"I was convinced it was just an infection… instead, it was the worst-case scenario." Photo credit: @jessgiczey / Instagram

An Australian student diagnosed with terminal brain cancer has spoken out about the small but significant symptoms she ignored for months prior to her devastating diagnosis. 

In 2018, Jess Giczey, just 21, was working towards a master's degree in tax law at the University of Western Australia when she decided to relocate to Florida for a five-month programme at Disney World. Living abroad and working as a lifeguard, the "pretty healthy, normal 21-year-old" was suddenly plagued by a raft of symptoms. Mere months into her stint, she began experiencing exhaustion, blurred vision and frequent vomiting. 

An MRI later found a tumour the size of a fist on her brain, and she was diagnosed with stage four glioblastoma, an aggressive form of terminal cancer.

Speaking to 7News, Giczey, now 25, said her biggest challenge has been facing the concept of mortality at such a young age. 

"Even now at 25, I'm not sure that I've completely wrapped my head around the fact that there's something inside me trying to kill me, essentially."

Recounting the series of events that led to her diagnosis, Giczey told 7News her partner Kilian, her high-school sweetheart, had joined her in the US shortly after her arrival for a whirlwind trip around the country. But by the end of October 2018, about a month after Kilian had returned to Australia, Giczey said she began to feel ill. 

"I had started feeling really tired, was vomiting a lot, and my vision and hearing got really bad," she said.

Knowing she had a habit of being "a bit dramatic" when she was ill and not wanting to be hit with a hefty medical bill, Giczey waved off the symptoms and attempted to carry on with day-to-day life. She dismissed her illness as homesickness and put it down to working long hours. 

Giczey didn't seek medical advice until she had completed her stint at Disney World, months after the symptoms first appeared. 

Back in Australia, she sought the advice of her GP, who recommended she undergo an MRI scan as soon as possible. 

The MRI found a mass on her brain, and she was transferred to a neurology ward for surgery. A biopsy of the tumour was taken and a shunt was inserted to drain the fluid. Five days later, she returned to the clinic with Kilian and her parents to meet with the surgeon. 

"The surgeon told us I had stage four glioblastoma after they found a tumour the size of my fist," she recalled to 7News. "He said he couldn't remove it or operate as it was right on top of my brain stem, it was too close to critical areas.

"The tumour was blocking the fluid in my brain from draining naturally and the build-up created pressure in my brain, which was causing my symptoms.

"Since I started feeling sick, I was convinced it was just an infection of some sort and I'd be put on antibiotics and everything would be fine. Instead, it was the worst-case scenario."

The 21-year-old was told she'd need to undergo radiation and chemotherapy as soon as her scars from the surgery had healed. 

After six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy, subsequent scans found the tumour had shrunk by about 50 percent. But in May 2021, Jess was struck by a severe migraine that left her unable to talk, and a second tumour was discovered on her pons - a region of the brain stem which controls breathing, communication, hearing and taste.

The cancer had also spread, with several tumours located along her spine. She was told further radiation could put her at risk of losing her ability to walk, talk, breathe - or even blink.

Despite the devastating setback, Giczey received a welcome surprise when Kilian, her high-school sweetheart and boyfriend of six years, popped the question in June 2021. Despite her ongoing battle and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the couple were able to pull together a wedding in less than two months, with the pair tying the knot in an intimate ceremony in August. 

"I was expecting to have radiation in a couple of months, so we put it together in six weeks so we could get married before I felt too sick from treatment."

Currently, Giczey is in a stable condition, despite being given just 12 to 14 months to live upon her diagnosis. Despite undergoing a range of treatments to fight the cancer and extend her life, her disease is incurable - and eventually, her options will run out. 

As per 7News, Giczey continues to have chemotherapy infusions every three weeks and underwent four weeks of radiation earlier this year to target the second tumour on her pons.

Next, she will undergo further radiation to target a tumour in her neck, but in the meantime, the young woman is focusing on her family, her husband, their puppy and volunteering. 

Based on her experience, the 25-year-old is urging anyone experiencing unusual symptoms to seek medical advice. 

"Trust your gut… Write things down as well, so if there is a pattern and it's not getting better, you have an idea of how long that's been happening for," she told 7News.

"You know your body best, and so if it doesn't feel right to you, get it checked out."