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Nancy Farrell
Photo Courtesy: Nancy Farrell
Nancy Farrell participates in the November 2007 Turkey Trot, a 5K run on the sea ice near McMurdo Station. It was Farrell's first trip back to the Ice in two years after successfully beating breast cancer. She devotes much of her free time to charity work and her own education, in what she calls a 50-year plan for her bachelor's degree. Says Farrell, "I think there’s always something you can learn about."

'Escape of a lifetime'

Farrell returns to the Ice after beating back cancer

Nancy Farrell figured she would stick around the U.S. Antarctic Program for maybe five years before moving on to something new in her life.

That was in 1991, when her now-husband Mac McKeel talked her into taking a job at McMurdo Station. For 14 seasons she traveled to the Ice, working as a data entry lead and then IT trainer, before finding the perfect fit as a work order supervisor for the facilities, engineering, maintenance and construction department, better known as FEMC.

“It was like the escape of a lifetime,” Farrell says of that long ago decision to work in Antarctica, which eventually turned into a full-time job in the program. She would split each year between Antarctica and Colorado, where she works for Raytheon Polar Services (RPS), the primary contractor that supports the National Science Foundation’s science mission on the Ice.

But on Easter Sunday, in 2005, Farrell no longer had the option of going back to Antarctica. She was diagnosed with breast cancer. For the next two years, she underwent treatment, including a bilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. Reconstructive surgery followed after the double mastectomy.

Farrell had always been that person who heads the fundraisers at work and devotes her time to charity. Much of her charitable work had been devoted to breast cancer, because she had two close friends who had battled the disease.

“And here I thought I knew what it was like to have breast cancer through my friends,” she recalls. “But I had no clue. You really don’t know until you walk in their shoes. … I later thought, ‘I’m just benefiting from the participation and the research.’”

The news disturbed her co-workers, particularly considering Farrell’s well-known selflessness. “When she was told she had breast cancer, it really shook us,” recalls Elaine Hood, a colleague and friend at RPS. “Not only do we love her, but she, of all people, has done more to raise money for cancer research in our office than anyone else. She truly has a selfless attitude.”

For a while, Farrell admits to self-pity. “You do ask, ‘Why me?’ all the time,” she says. “It became my biggest question for a year.” She wondered if she had taken better care of herself if she would have gotten sick. “Then you look around and you ask why not you.

“It’s definitely a big emotional disease,” she adds. “In a way, the breast cancer forced me to accept the fact that I wouldn’t go back. It was good; it wasn’t so hard. You have this more important thing to deal with, so you’re going to have to let the program go.”

The American Cancer Society estimates there will be more than 180,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer among women in the United States this year, as well as about 2,000 new cases in men. Excluding cancers of the skin, breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in women.

More than 40,000 people will die from breast cancer this year, though the five-year survival rate for localized breast cancer (malignant cancer that has not spread to lymph nodes or other locations outside the breast) has increased from 80 percent in the 1950s to 98 percent today.

“The treatment has changed a lot, and the survival rate is much better,” says Farrell, who candidly discussed the disease with friends and co-workers to defuse the fear and angst that so often accompanies diagnoses of cancer.

Amazingly, she says she only missed about three weeks of work from the illness, and that co-workers and supervisors were immensely supportive throughout the ordeal. On the Ice, friends flew Tibetan prayer flags, while others sent e-mails and gifts of encouragement. “That’s why it was so easy to be open about it, because they are like your family.”

Now, cancer-free, she returned to McMurdo Station last austral summer for about eight weeks after getting a medical waiver from the National Science Foundation to deploy.

“Nobody likes someone telling you that you can’t go,” Farrell says, “so when I got the waiver, I remember screaming and jumping up and down. I was crying, ‘I got my waiver.’”

Her work on the behalf of others certainly hasn’t slowed. She’s involved with a local Relay for Life event to raise money for breast cancer research, and her knitting club donates items for a number of causes. Farrell also cooked up breakfast burritos to support causes such as Project Angel Heart, a charity that provides meals for people with AIDS, cancer and other life-threatening diseases.

“There’s always a need out there. There’s too much need,” she says. As the oldest of four siblings, Farrell says she’s always been a nurturer. “I have to have something to nurture. I always have to be doing something. If I’m watching a movie, I might as well be knitting.

“I’d rather do it without recognition,” adds the 52-year-old Coloradoan. “It’s just a personal growth process for me. … There’s always something worse. That’s scary, but it’s true. I’m truly blessed and have so much to be thankful for.”

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs