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South Pole doc with cancer still fights for life

A decade ago, Dr. Jerri Nielsen made headlines when she was stricken with breast cancer while stranded in one of the world's most remote and hostile places — the South Pole. Sadly, Nielsen's cancer has returned, this time to her brain.
/ Source: PEOPLE.com

They called it the Miracle on Ice.

A decade ago, Dr. Jerri Nielsen made headlines when she was stricken with breast cancer while stranded in one of the world's most remote and hostile places — the South Pole. Eventually, an emergency airlift ferried her to safety and the medical attention she would need to save her life.

Nielsen's dramatic story of survival landed her on the cover of PEOPLE and inspired a book and 2003 movie starring Susan Sarandon.

But whatever happened to her?

Sadly, her fight for her life goes on. Her husband, Tom Fitzgerald, tells PEOPLE that Nielsen's cancer has returned, this time to her brain. "Do you know about brain cancer?," he said when asked how his wife was holding up. "If you want to talk with her, you'd better do it soon." Fitzgerald promised to give his wife a message, but there has been no return call from Nielsen, 57.

Daring rescue
The Salem, Ohio, native was working a year-long stint at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station when she found a lump in her breast in June, 1999 – during the depths of Antarctica's unforgiving winter. Temperatures reach 80 degrees below zero, and the sun doesn't shine; there was no hope of getting a plane in to rescue her.

"I thought, 'You gambled and you lost. You're going to die,' " Nielsen told an audience at her alma mater, the University of Toledo medical college, last October, according to the Toledo Blade. But help came when medication for chemotherapy was dropped in an airlift. Nielsen taught a welder to do a needle biopsy of her tumor by having him practice on potatoes, and a technician sent images to doctors in the U.S. via the Internet. Finally, in October of 1999, pilots managed to land a LC-130 Hercules cargo plane on a frozen runway and ferried Nielsen home.

A brief respite
After returning to Indiana, Nielsen's cancer went into remission, but it reappeared in 2005. She forged ahead with treatment and wed Fitzgerald, her second husband. (She has three children from her first marriage.) Today, she lives with in Southwick, Mass., where she is focused on survival. In February, she left a message for a reporter from the Detroit Free Press who had been trying to contact her for months.

"My problem, of course, is the cancer has gone to my brain," Nielsen said. "I'm not as smart a girl as I used to be. I'm not as hard a worker, that's for sure. But I'm still doing everything, I'm writing a book and giving speeches, and I'm really having a beautiful winter."

A decade earlier, in an e-mail to PEOPLE, she wrote of her longing to return to her childhood home: "I see myself becoming weaker, then stronger, among the large Ohio trees that defined my childhood. As much as I love the Ice and the Sea, the most comfortable place is under the canopies of Birches and Hickory, of Maples and of great Oaks."

She signed off that day, "From knowing the darkness, I have seen the light."