Around the time I turned 55 earlier this year, I was finding out that my first six-month post-slash-‘n’-burn mammogram appeared to show some possible further breast cancer, for which I was advised to get another diagnostic mammogram as soon as possible. My best birthday present this year, far and away, was being told that this second mammogram was all clear and that I was off the hook for six months. After you’ve been ‘on the hook’ for nine long months, which have often felt more like nine years, a six-month reprieve from cancer is better than winning the lottery.
Yesterday, Jerri Nielsen ran out of reprieves.
The news story of her death came over my car radio as I was riding to my next patient visit. I remember her remarkable story from a decade ago. In June of 1999, Dr. Nielsen made national headlines when she found a lump in her breast as a 47-year-old physician stationed at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station. She was the sole doctor on the research team, which was effectively stranded at the Antarctic base then due to the severe weather of the Antarctic winter. Communicating with oncologists by email, she performed a biopsy on herself, with two colleagues assisting, and treated herself with chemotherapy meds that were dropped by parachute to the station by Air Force pilots. Finally, in October, in temperatures of minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit, a plane was able to land briefly to pick her up — her colleagues literally throwing her into the plane, then immediately retreating from the weather before she could say goodbye — and bring her home. After treatment, her cancer went into remission.
In 2005, her cancer returned, to metastasize to her liver, bones and brain. She continued to speak publicly about her battle with the disease, and was interviewed as recently as March of this year. Yesterday, she lost her life to breast cancer, surrounded by her family in Massachusetts. She was 57 years old.
I pulled the car over to the side of the road and cried.
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