BOSTON (AP) — Dr. Jerri Nielsen
FitzGerald, who diagnosed and treated her own breast cancer before a
dramatic rescue from the South Pole a decade ago, has died after the
disease recurred. She was 57.

Her husband, Thomas FitzGerald,
said she died Tuesday at their home in Southwick, Mass. Her cancer had
been in remission until it returned in August 2005, he said Wednesday.

She
was the only doctor among 41 staff at the National Science Foundation’s
Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in winter 1999 when she discovered a
lump in her breast. At first, she didn’t tell anyone, but the burden
became too much to bear.

“I got really sick,” she told The
Associated Press in a 2003 interview. “I had great big lymph nodes
under my arm. I thought I would die.”

Rescue was out of the
question. Because of the extreme weather conditions, the station is
closed to the outside world for the winter. She had no choice but to
treat the disease herself, with help from colleagues she trained to
care for her and U.S.-based doctors she stayed in touch with via
satellite e-mail.

She performed a biopsy on herself with the help of staff.

A machinist helped her with her IV and test slides, and a welder helped with chemotherapy.

She
treated herself with anti-cancer drugs delivered during a gripping
mid-July 1999 airdrop by a U.S. Air Force plane in blackout, freezing
conditions.

In a headline-grabbing rescue, she was lifted by the
Air National Guard that October, one of the earliest flights ever into
the station when it became warm enough — 58 degrees below zero — to
make the risky flight.

After multiple surgeries in the U.S., including a mastectomy, the cancer went into remission.

“More
and more as I am here and see what life really is, I understand that it
is not when or how you die but how and if you truly were ever alive,”
she wrote in an e-mail to her parents in June 1999 from the South Pole.

Nielsen FitzGerald never lost her adventurous spirit and even returned to desolate Antarctica several more times.

“She
had incredible zest and enthusiasm for life,” said her husband, whom
she first met 23 years ago when they were both on vacation in the
Amazon. “She was the kindest soul I ever met. She was intelligent, with
a great sense of humor, and she lived each day to the fullest.”

She
documented her ordeal in the best-selling book “Ice Bound: A Doctor’s
Incredible Battle for Survival at the South Pole.” It was later made
into a TV movie.

The disease made her stronger, she said in November 2001.

“I
would rather not have it. But the cancer is part of me. It’s given my
life color and texture. Everyone has to get something. Some people are
ugly, some people are stupid. I get cancer,” she said at lecture in
Denver.

Nielsen FitzGerald spent the
last decade speaking around the world about the cancer and how it
changed her life, and she worked as a roving ER doctor in hospitals all
over the Northeast.

“She fought bravely, she was able to make the
best of what life and circumstance gave her, and she had the most
resilience I have ever seen in anyone,” said her husband. “She fought
hard, and she fought valiantly.”

The couple would have celebrated their third anniversary next week.

Indiana University cancer specialist Dr. Kathy Miller, who by e-mail and videoconference helped Nielsen treat herself for nearly five months before she could leave the South Pole, said Nielsen’s willingness to speak about her fight against cancer helped give hope to other cancer patients.

“She
was very passionate about continuing to live her life,” Miller said.
“She continued to work for many years, she married again, she traveled
extensively. I think that gave a lot of our patients hope that even
when disease recurs life can still go on and we can still find a lot of
good things in that life.”

Miller said Nielsen’s advocacy helped cancer patients much like that of Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong and actress Christina Applegate.

“It’s
easy to underestimate the importance of those public messages,” Miller
said. “We see increases in screenings when people who have public lives
come forward in this way.”

Nielsen
FitzGerald’s passion for life shone through during a visit to the
University of Toledo medical school last October, even though her
cancer had metastasized to the brain and she knew she did not have much
time left, said vice provost Patricia Metting.

“You couldn’t help but be moved by this woman and her profound words and just the optimism that she had,” Metting said.

Besides
her husband, the Youngstown, Ohio-area native and graduate of the
University of Toledo medical school is survived by parents Lorine and
Phil Cahill, brothers Scott Cahill and Eric Cahill and three children
from a previous marriage, Julia, Ben and Alex.

Memorial and funeral arrangements were pending.


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