Ice Bound by Jerri Nielsen with Maryanne Vollers

Ebury Press | 2001 | 379 p | Own copy | 5*

I read Ice Bound: One Woman’s Incredible Battle for Survival over two months, taking my time. Dr Jerri Nielsen was a forty-six year old doctor working in Ohio when in 1998 she made the decision to take a year’s sabbatical at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station in Antarctica, the most remote and perilous place on earth. She had just been through an acrimonious divorce and could no longer see her children.

The first part of the book describes life at the South Pole in detail, the layers of clothing needed in the extreme cold, the adjustments to living at 11,000 feet above sea level, and the difficulties of living at the pole with power failures, fires, frostbite, boredom, memory loss, nausea, and getting lost in the darkness and total whiteout. But she also describes the friendships she made and how she felt about celebrating her forty-seventh birthday at the South Pole:

It was the best birthday I had had since childhood. I was forty-seven and surrounded by friends, in a community that needed me, in a place that I loved, discovering more every day about what truly mattered in life. (page 138)

It’s about half way into the book that she describes when in the dark Antarctic winter of 1999 she discovered a lump in her breast. Whilst the Pole was cut off from the rest of the world in total darkness she treated herself, taking biopsies and having chemotherapy, until she was rescued by the Air National Guard in October 1999. She said this about her experience:

I can say that after living at the South Pole nothing can possibly terrify me, even looking at my own death. That is one of the many things this place does to you. Nothing after that really matters. (page 190)

The descriptions of the polar landscape are just beautiful:

I was fascinated by the concept of twilight and its three discrete stages. Yet all I truly understood was that the world outside the Dome seemed beautiful and alien every day. Now the sky was deep purple with bands of orange on the horizon. I was outside watching the sky one day when I saw my first aura. It looked like a shimmering green curtain, rolling in a solar wind, with pink searchlights shooting into the atmosphere like heaven’s own movie premier. The rest was silence and space. (page 147)

This is a true story of survival under extreme circumstances, of courage and endurance. Even without cancer I cannot imagine coping with life at the South Pole. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011 and had a lumpectomy and radiotherapy so I have experienced some of what she went through, but it was nothing compared to what Jerri Nielssen had to go through. To take my own biopsies and administer my own chemotherapy like she did would be beyond me. It is hard for me to read even now years later and I found it immensely moving.

The book alternates between narrative and personal letters and emails and in her acknowledgments Jerri Nielssen thanks Maryanne Vollers for her help in telling her story. It held me spellbound from beginning to end.

I wanted to know what happened next to her. The book has an Epilogue that describes how she was treated – mastectomy, more chemotherapy and radiation. The cancer then went into remission, but in 2005 it returned in her bones and liver, later spreading to her brain and she died in June 2009. A brave and truly inspirational woman.

Adventures of a One-Breasted Woman by Susan Cummings

I received Susan Cumming’s book Adventures of a One-Breasted Woman: Reclaiming My Moxie After Cancer from the publisher via LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewer programme.

About the author from Goodreads:

Susan Cummings is a writer, an actress and now a 20-year breast cancer survivor. Once a newspaper reporter, she has since been published in a number of literary journals and written songs and plays. Feeling alone and vulnerable after her mastectomy for early-stage breast cancer, she looked, in vain, for a memoir of another woman’s experiences after cancer treatment. Eventually she wrote the book she had sought. She lived in New York City for many years, but is now settled in western Massachusets.

The fact that I’ve read this book shows how I’ve become more adjusted to reading about cancer than I was a few years ago. At that time I had grave misgivings about reading about breast cancer because my mother had died from it many years ago. But I was diagnosed with breast cancer a year last August and was so encouraged by how treatment has improved over the years that I’m now able to face reading about it. I haven’t had a mastectomy as Susan Cummings had but I was able to identity with some of the feelings she describes. Even so, I hesitated about reading the book as everyone has their own ways of coping and everybody’s experience is different.

Susan Cummings was diagnosed with cancer in 1992 and she chose to have a mastectomy rather than a lumpectomy followed by radiation because her surgeon said it would be a more assured cure. She didn’t move on after the operation and struggled with fear that the cancer would recur and with shame about her disfigured body.

Her book follows her thoughts and feelings over the six years after her surgery with openness. At times she was depressed, at others more optimistic and cheerful, accepting her body for what it is. I thought it was very good, easy to read and encouraging to read about someone who had not only survived but had managed to overcome her problems and face up to life with courage. Throughout the book I thought she looked realistically at the options open to her. It’s also an account of relationships and how they change, about her childhood and about different and alternative methods of healing.  I’m glad to have received and read it.

Saturday Snapshot

This scene has become very familiar to me over the last four weeks:

Edinburgh Cancer Centre view of Edinburgh skyline2

It’s the Edinburgh skyline I can see from the Edinburgh Western General Hospital. The tall spire towards the left of the photo is the Scott Monument in Princes Street Gardens. Moving to the right of that is the fortress that is Edinburgh Castle and below that the green dome is the copper-clad dome of West Register House, one of the buildings of the National Archive of Scotland, in Charlotte Square.

And this is why – it’s the view from the Edinburgh Cancer Centre, where I’ve been going for the last four weeks. (Last week I wrote about being diagnosed with a breast cancer – see this post.)

It’s not as grim inside as it looks outside – it’s quite nice actually. I’ve got two more sessions of radiotherapy next week and then that is the end of my treatment, apart from follow-up appointments and a bone density scan. I’ll be glad to get back to ‘normal’. Maybe then I’ll get back to writing about books – I’ve got quite a pile lined up to review.

See more Saturday Snapshots on Alyce’s blog At Home With Books.

Why I haven’t been writing many book reviews

I’ve not been writing many book posts these last few weeks, I’ve now read four books and not written about them, although I have nearly finished a post about Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety.

Here’s the reason.

This is something I’ve been thinking about writing about for a while now, but now seems the right time. Last August I was diagnosed with a breast cancer. I couldn’t feel a lump, but my breast didn’t look right and I thought it might be a cancer. My GP couldn’t feel a lump either but thought it best to check it out at the local hospital’s breast clinic. It was still a shock to have it confirmed- even more so when the consultant said he thought I needed a mastectomy and he could do it very soon. But when they examined the biopsy it turned out that the type of cancer I had was oestrogen receptive and it was possible it would shrink by taking hormone therapy tablets. I was amazed to say the least. Apparently if you have to have a breast cancer, this type is the best one to have!!!

And so, from August to February I faithfully took the tablets, with practically no side effects – and they worked, shrinking the cancer by about a third. Still, I did need an operation, but a wide local excision, or lumpectomy in everyday language, and not a mastectomy. I had the operation at the beginning of March. It was just day surgery and went well. It was a strange experience, having surgery to correct something that wasn’t causing me any pain or discomfort and coming round from the operation with scars and discomfort – and that was all it was discomfort, soreness, massive bruising and swelling.

But all the cancer has been removed, the bruising has disappeared. It’s still tender and I get darting pains every now and then. Currently I’m having 20 sessions of radiotherapy as a precautionary measure. It’s every weekday, but the sessions are only 10 minutes long, with the actual radiation only taking about two/three minutes. There was a planning appointment where they pinpointed the area to target, and I mean pinpoint as I have at least four (I lost count) minute tattoos that outline the area. For someone who hates the idea of having tattoos, this was quite daunting, but they are such small dots I can hardly see them and it didn’t hurt (much) when they did them.

So far, I’ve had 8 treatments and it has all been painless. I’m told that tiredness kicks in after about a fortnight’s treatment and by the end of the sessions my skin may get red and sore, as though I’d got sunburn. I hope that is as bad as it gets. The most difficult thing so far has been the travelling to Edinburgh for the treatment. It takes 1 hour 20 minutes each way, which is tiring enough on its own. D is driving me and we’re listening to Blue Lightning by Ann Cleeves, the fourth in her Shetland series with Detective Jimmy Perez investigating murders on Fair Isle, which is keeping us both guessing who the murderer could be.

I’ve always had a dread of cancer, made more personal when my mother had a mastectomy, when I was in my twenties. She died five years later, after it had spread. My father died of bronchial cancer, after smoking since he was ten years old and four years ago this August my sister died of lung cancer – she’d smoked since she was 15. But, I have to say, that so far it’s not been too bad. I’m a terrible wimp regarding needles and injections and that has been the worst thing for me – the most painful was the injection before the doctor took the ultrasound core biopsies, but it wasn’t much worse than injections I’ve had at the dentist. It’s the fear of the unknown that has been more terrible than the treatment itself.

I am so grateful for the NHS – speedy appointments, kind and caring medical staff, and practically pain free treatment (I won’t mention the nurse who had great difficulty taking blood from me). I’ve had so many tests and scans and thankfully the cancer hadn’t spread anywhere else. Even so, the surgeon took a biopsy of my lymph nodes when he did the lumpectomy just to make sure, which confirmed the cancer hasn’t spread .

I like to know as much as possible about what’s happening to me and I asked the breast care nurse if there was anything I could read about breast cancer. She warned me off reading statistics online as these are often out of date and gave me a pack produced by Breast Cancer Care, which is an excellent introduction. What I have found most helpful are the Macmillan Cancer support publications, particularly Understanding Breast Cancer and Understanding Radiotherapy. Books on cancer are rather more problematic, as so many are out of date, or are aimed at the medical profession. There are some written by patients, but I’m a bit wary about them as symptoms and treatments differ from person to person. Treatment in the future looks promising as I’ve seen on the news about progress that’s being made in diagnosing cancers and less invasive ways of treating them.

This may have slowed me down, writing about the books I’ve read, but it certainly hasn’t slowed down my reading. It has brought home to me just how many books there are and that it really is true – ‘so many books, so little time‘. It’s not just books, of course, because no matter how young or old you are, how well or ill you are, life is unpredictable and we should make the most of it whilst we can.

I am optimistic, because as my breast care nurse said ‘the cancer’s away and the prognosis is good.’