LIBERTY Doctor: Good came of having cancer
A brush with death helped her realize the importance of life, love and friendship.
By MARALINE KUBIK
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
LIBERTY -- Dr. Jerri Nielsen is glad she had cancer. She's not happy to have gone through the pain of being sick and stranded at the South Pole, but what she learned has made her life much richer.
"It teaches you what is important in life. It added to my soul," she told more than 400 women Monday at the Pink Ribbon Tea, a celebration for breast cancer survivors presented by The Junior League of Youngstown at the Holiday Inn MetroPlex.
Nielsen discovered a lump in her breast while serving as the physician for a 40-member research team at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station in 1999.
Treated herself: Because she was the only physician there, she performed her own biopsy and treated herself with drugs air dropped at the station before being rescued by the Air National Guard eight months later. Severe cold prevented an earlier rescue.
Nielsen said she came to truly appreciate life, love and friendship and "the amazing resiliency" of the human spirit.
She also told her audience she does not like to talk about her cancer.
"Every time I get dressed I'm reminded of it. I don't need to talk about it," she said. "I can't relate to being a cancer survivor because I don't know if I am one. I have a 50 percent chance of surviving five years. I'd rather think of myself as a survivor of life."
Inspiration: Nielsen said she has been inspired by three women: one who taught her how to die, one who taught her how to live and one who taught her the importance of trying.
Her mother-in-law, Ruth Nielsen, taught her how to die by her wonderful example; she touched the lives of those she loved and allowed them to touch hers. After being diagnosed with a terminal illness, her mother-in-law wrote to all of the people who had made a difference in her life thanking them for their kindnesses, Nielsen said. She also spent much of her time visiting old friends.
Many of those old friends wrote back, telling her about the differences she'd made in their lives, things she wouldn't have known if she hadn't taken the initiative, Nielsen said. "She kept those letters on her coffee table and read them over and over, and she died very happy.
"My mother taught me how to live. She's a real fireball, and when she turned 60, she wrote a letter to all of her friends," Nielsen continued. That letter, referred to by family members as "the list," details what activities her mother has no intention of ever doing again and which activities she would welcome an invitation to participate in.
Among the activities she won't do -- because life is too short to spend time doing things she doesn't like -- are attending performances involving children or the opera, Nielsen chuckled; among those she would gladly participate in are "visiting beer joints with her friends," private dinner parties and bonfires.
The third woman to have a significant impact on Nielsen's life was her grandmother, Peggy Cahill. When she was in her early 20s she sold everything she owned and bought a one-way ticket to America to marry a man she'd never met, Nielsen said. It didn't turn out to be the happily-ever-after adventure she'd dreamed of, Nielsen said, "but at least she tried."
Pursuing dreams: Pursuing dreams and making the best of life is what is important, Nielsen stressed. "Cancer gives life color and texture, it shouldn't be the focus of life." Even if the rest of life is a year of intensive cancer therapy, it can yield some wonderful things, she said.
"You can make something good out of a year of dying."
As a physician, Nielsen said having cancer made her realize that sometimes it is the people who love the dying person who are in greatest need of care. "I was able to come to be comfortable with the fact that I may be dying much easier than my family was," she said.
A liberating experience: She also found the cancer experience to be very freeing. Until then, she'd always been the one saving lives. As a patient, she didn't have to be the rescuer. However, it was her responsibility to her patients, the 40 researchers at the South Pole who depended on her for all of their medical care, who drove her will to survive.
"The real heroes in my story," she said, "were the people who risked their lives to get me out. All I did was survive. I see me as an ordinary person. The only reason I survived is because I had wonderful friends."