Wednesday, June 24, 2009
RIP Dr. Jerri Nielsen
Sometimes, life with BRCA can be seemingly unbearable. I think to myself, incredulously, I have what now? (An almost 90% chance of getting breast cancer) And what again are my options? (Either wait and get it or surgically remove your breasts) And how is this fair? (It's not, but at least I know) These pity parties usually don't do much to assuage my shock that this is happening to me. The only thing, I've found, that makes me less paralyzed in the face of my ordeal is recognizing (and being humbled by) the fact that there are so many worse things I could be affected by. (For those keeping score, Masha Gessen's Blood Matters is a veritable treasure trove of diseases and conditions that make BRCA look like a blessing: the one that haunts me is Maple Syrup Disease. Also, prophylactic removal of the breasts seems downright pedestrian compared to the surgery offered to carriers of the stomach cancer gene. Read the book. It's really eye-opening.)
I was in the middle of having one of my periodic pity parties today when I was reminded again what a wimp I am. How good I have it. How BRCA is nothing compared to the real shit life throws at you. You see, Dr. Jerri Nielsen -- a physician who found, treated, and operated on her breast cancer while moored at a remote outpost in the Antartic -- died yesterday at the age of 57. Talk about a bad ass. She was stationed at the South Pole, physically cut off from the rest of the inhabited world, and she faced -- and beat -- cancer. By operating on herself. By administering chemotherapy drugs airdropped by military aircraft.
That's simply awe-inspiring.
Here I am, a scared little girl. Dr. Nielsen bravely confronted her disease in ways I cannot even imagine or begin to think I could replicate. She wins, hands down.
But of course, in her case, the cancer actually won. In returned in 2005, seven years after its original attack, and eventually metastasized to her liver and bones. It spread to her brain. And yesterday it killed her.
But in the 11 years Dr. Nielsen had between her harrowing ordeal and her young death, she inspired many, especially me. I'm humbled by her passion for life. And I'm saddened to hear of her death. I'll put on a brave face for you, Jerri, because you had balls enough for all us women out there facing the terrible disease that you fought with such astonishing grace.