Emergency room doctor Jerri Nielsen was 46 when she took a job at the South Pole as the American research station's physician. Nielsen, who was escaping both the aftermath of a bitter divorce and the frustrations of bureaucratic medicine, loved the harsh simplicity and the camaraderie of life on the ice.
But a few months into the pitch-dark winter, she realized that she had breast cancer. Trapped by temperatures so low that no plane could land, Nielsen thought she might die before the spring. With no alternatives, she performed a needle biopsy on herself and trained her co-workers to give her chemotherapy. Finally evacuated to the United States, Nielsen endured a mastectomy, multiple surgeries, complications—and most recently, the discovery that her cancer has come back.
"My experience at the Pole had to do with accepting things that most people fear most deeply and coming to feel that they need not be feared. It certainly had far more to do with peace and surrender than it did with courage. Being 'on the ice' was a great good fortune: It created a much greater clarity for me about what was essential in life. I'm not afraid of death. I've come to accept it as being part of life, and I think I've come to accept it earlier than my years because of what's happened to me.