The Explorer: Jerri Nielsen

A brush with death: she was trapped at the South Pole with cancer—and it was worth it.

By Marion Long, published March 1, 2006 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

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.

"[When I learned the cancer had metastasized to my bones], after about three weeks of going through a kind of terror, I felt the most incredible peace come over me. Now I am very happy, and excited about going forward with my life. The metastatic disease is now just another part of me, another thing that has happened to me.

"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 just 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.'"