In Memory of South Pole Breast Cancer Patient Dr. Jerri Nielsen
I’ve fantasized that Ed McMahon is standing at my doorstep with that million-dollar check. I’ve tapped my toes to Michael Jackson’s tunes. I’ve admired Farrah Fawcett’s beauty and talent. But none of the “celebrities” who died this week have affected my life as much as Jerri Nielsen.
“Jerri who?” you say. She’s been out of the limelight for a while, so maybe you will remember her better if I pair her name with “doctor who treated her own breast cancer in Antarctica” or with “inspiration for a TV movie starring Susan Sarandon.”
I was saddened to learn earlier this week that she died from her breast cancer 10 years after she first felt a lump while snowed in for the winter at the South Pole. After a divorce, Neilsen was working as the only doctor for the South Pole research station. I read her best-selling book Ice Bound: A Doctor’s Incredible Battle for Survival at the South Pole when it came out in 2001, and as a recent breast cancer survivor myself, I was astounded at how she coped with her experience.
One of the things I learned from Jerri is the power of denial. Lump? What lump? I’m too busy this week. I don’t have health insurance. It’s probably just a cyst. I’m too young to have breast cancer. Some women, even educated women like Elizabeth Edwards, will wait because they are busy with their husband’s work. Other women wait because they are afraid to hear the truth. I’ve done my share of ignoring symptoms that should be checked out, so it’s a phenomenon I know too well.
Jerri Nielsen had a better reason than most of us to wait. She was the only doctor at the South Pole. Who could she tell? Who could help her? She writes in her book Ice Bound, “A month had come and gone since I first discovered a lump in my breast. I had hoped it would disappear after my period, as others had done before. But it was still there and had grown slightly bigger and more irregular. I could feel the beginnings of another mass just below it. I decided to wait a while longer before telling anyone, as nothing could be done about this. I wanted to see if other changes occurred. I knew it could be cancer, but I wasn’t prepared to believe that yet, and I didn’t want to raise the alarm by telling anyone at the Pole.”
Part of Jerri Nielson’s story is the lesson of the power of denial, of the ways we fool ourselves into doing nothing. The rest of her story is the power of possibility and collaboration. Once she told others about her situation, she worked out a way with the limited medical equipment available to train a non-medical colleague to help her do her own biopsy. Once the biopsy confirmed that she did have cancer, she administered herself chemotherapy drugs airdropped in the dark of the South Pole winter. And during her illness she continued to treat the men and women wintering at the South Pole.
After returning to the United States to finish her cancer treatment, Nielsen wrote a book and spoke about her experience all over the world. She married Tom Fitzgerald and returned to her previous work as an emergency room physician. Like so many cancer patients, she turned her story into ways to help others. CNN quotes her from a 2006 interview with Psychology Today, "The things that make you strong, and make you feel as though you've accomplished something, are not the easy ones; it's the things you had to work and struggle through. Those are what give us our depth -- that make us not gray and plain and nothing but give us depth and texture and longing.
"I believe you're always much better off knowing what the real truth is. I think it's only then that you can come to grips with your illness, or with any difficult situation. Some people call this process 'mourning.' I prefer to call it tiring of the fear and the depression and the denial, and the fake optimism and the irritation of it all -- and just saying, 'Hey, I'm tired of feeling bad about this. Now I go on.' "
Even after her cancer recurred in 2005, Neilsen continued to be an inspirational speaker until very recently. I wish that she could have died during a slow news week! In this week when the newscasts are giving tribute to those who shared their gifts of laughter, music, and beauty, I wish that just a little more attention had been paid to Jerri Nielsen, who turned terror into teamwork, and who taught us how to find inner strength.