DeeDee Jonrowe struggles with battle against cancer

Posted: Wednesday, October 02, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- DeeDee Jonrowe isn't used to this.

She's used to feeling strong. She's used to feeling in control. She's used to feeling beautiful.

Today, Jonrowe feels weak and helpless, sometimes like ''a freak'' -- all side effects from the chemotherapy she's receiving to combat breast cancer.

Cancer has hit Jonrowe, a 19-time Iditarod finisher and a tough racer in area triathlons and runs, harder than anything before it. Harder than mushing into a subzero whiteout. Harder than the car accident that nearly killed her.

''You spend a lifetime taking care of yourself,'' said Jonrowe, 48, ''and something like this just kicks your feet out from under you.''

The Willow musher cries when she says this has been the toughest year of her life.

In July, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Ever since, it's been a blur of pain, prayer, fear and tears for Jonrowe and her husband, Mike.

A week after diagnosis, Jonrowe had a mastectomy. On Aug. 15, she had her first chemotherapy treatment. One wound from the surgery still hasn't healed properly, a hurdle that sent her back to the hospital last week and delayed her third chemotherapy session.

''That was an all-time low. I was so discouraged,'' Jonrowe said. ''It had been two months, and I felt like I was going backwards.''

A perennial Iditarod contender who has placed second twice, Jonrowe has landed in the top five eight times and finished among the top 10 on 11 occasions.

But on the Iditarod Trail in March, she felt something amiss. The exhaustion she felt when she reached Golovin Bay, 1,000 miles into the 1,100-mile marathon, was more draining than ever before.

''In retrospect, (the cancer) is probably what happened to my endurance out on the bay,'' Jonrowe said of the physical crash that caused her to drop from among the race's leaders. During the same stretch, a dog in her team, Mark, collapsed, an incident that added to Jonrowe's devastation.

Days later, battered and worn, she finished 16th.

Since then, she has been in four hospitals. The first was in Nome after her Iditarod finish, where Mark died of complications from a stomach ulcer.

Soon after discovering she had cancer, Jonrowe learned her insurance policy didn't cover the six months of chemotherapy she was about to endure. The Jonrowes jumped at the offer of an additional insurance policy that helped with chemotherapy and prescription medication costs, but it carried a high price.

''It's expensive,'' Jonrowe said, ''but it's better than paying for everything out of pocket.''

Her financial trouble increased when two of her main Iditarod sponsors dropped her this spring. Retailer Eddie Bauer cited the economic climate, and dog food manufacturer Royal Canin USA shifting its marketing scheme.

With the couple's money now focused on Jonrowe's health -- the exams, the therapy, the medication, the almost daily commutes to Anchorage -- other things suffered.

Handlers to help tend the kennel had to go, and Jonrowe could put in only limited time, sandwiching her shifts in the dog lot with naps.

''Part of my therapy is working hard,'' Jonrowe said. ''That's what makes me feel good. Not watching TV, and I'm not a big book reader. But my life is so physical. It doesn't take much of an endurance dip to know that you're not on your game.''

Jonrowe has received a steady stream of encouraging phone calls, letters and cards from family members, friends and strangers since she announced her condition.

''People have just been wonderful,'' she said.

A group of Jonrowe's running buddies, members of the Valley Women's Running Team, have also rallied behind her. The group will hold a benefit run and auction to aid Jonrowe and raise breast cancer awareness. The Dog Dash for DeeDee will be Saturday in Palmer.

''It's my friends and fans. They're really sponsoring my life,'' Jonrowe said. ''Some days, I feel like a freak. I'm bald, and I don't feel all that attractive. To have this amount of support -- it really makes me feel normal.''

Jonrowe has also found comfort in caring for two dogs that aren't even hers, a pair of Pomeranians owned by old friend Patti Godfrey, who is recovering from wounds suffered in the shooting that claimed her husband, Glenn Godfrey. Jonrowe has trained the dogs to become therapy dogs, animals that can function socially around ill people and offer gentle affection.

''It has been a blessing,'' Jonrowe said.

Jonrowe's focus will always be on her own dogs, though, and her competitive spirit remains strong. Those desires led to a lofty goal: to not just compete but to contend in the 2003 Iditarod in five months.

''I will be in the Iditarod,'' Jonrowe said. ''I'm going to be behind personally, but I don't think the dogs will be behind.''

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