Iditarod rookie Lance Mackey diagnosed with cancer

Posted: Sunday, April 08, 2001

KASILOF (AP) -- Lance Mackey thought he just had a lingering toothache when he saw a doctor three days after returning from his rookie run in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

It turned out to be far worse than the 30-year-old son of Iditarod legend Dick Mackey could have imagined. The diagnosis was squamous cell carcinoma, a form of cancer that usually strikes people twice his age.

The cancer appears to be isolated on the right side of Mackey's neck, according to doctors, who are planning aggressive treatment. They want to cut out the diseased muscle tissue and bombard him with radiation for the next six weeks, he said.

Mackey is scheduled for surgery Sunday at Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage.

''It's a shocker,'' the Kasilof resident said. ''I hear what they say, but it doesn't mean a whole lot to me yet. I've gotta stay strong, I know that one.''

Mackey, a commercial fisher, said he asked if he'll be able to talk after the surgery, and the doctors have indicated he will. But they said he might need rehabilitation on his right arm after some of his neck muscle is removed.

Mackey knew for about a year that something was wrong, he said. He'd seen to several doctors, and they all diagnosed his swollen neck as an abscessed tooth. He was popping antibiotics all winter.

He said he experienced some headaches during the Iditarod, but only one event indicated how serious the situation was. About midway through the race, he thought he heard some wolves between the ghost town of Iditarod and the Innoko River village of Shageluk.

He snapped his head back to take a look and felt a blinding pain in his neck. ''It dropped me right to my knees, instantly,'' he said.

Mackey wound up finishing his rookie run in 36th place with eight dogs, most of them yearlings, in a respectable time of 12 days, 18 hours.

Raymie Redington, a longtime family friend who finished just in front of Mackey and ran most of the race with him, said Mackey never complained. ''All he wanted was to get that (finisher's) patch,'' Redington said.

Mackey has described the race as a practice run. He hoped to spend the next four years building his young team, adding to the luster already surrounding the Mackey name.

His father, Dick, won in 1978. And his half-brother, Rick, was the 1983 champion -- the only father-son champs in the race's 29 years.

But those dreams of glory, not to mention this summer's commercial fishing season in the Bering Sea and Bristol Bay, may have to take a back seat, said his mother, Cindie Smith.

Lance, his wife, Tonya, and brother, Jason, have been staying with Smith while the medical testing and arrangements for surgery were done. They tapped another Iditarod veteran, Linda Joy of Kenai, to house-sit in Kasilof, where she is caring for his daughters, Amanda, 12, and Britteny, 11, as well as his 40 sled dogs.

The family has asked for dog food donations to help tide them over.

''He's not able to work, of course. It's going to be tough getting through this on our own, (so) if somebody's cleaning their freezers out ... '' Smith said.

She said anyone wanting to donate meat for the sled dogs can drop it off at Mackey's Cohoe Loop home, or they can bring commercial dog food to Rae's Harness Shop in Soldotna. Questions can be referred to Smith at 1-907-376-5273.

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