Lance Mackey, recovering from cancer, wins Chugiak 50 sled dog race

Posted: Monday, December 10, 2001

CHUGIAK (AP) -- Fresh out of cancer treatment and with a feeding tube still in his stomach, Iditarod musher Lance Mackey cruised to a first-place finish in Sunday's Chugiak 50 sled dog race.

Mackey edged out 10 other racers and finished the two-day, 25-mile-a-day event just five seconds before Carmen Perzechino, the second-place finisher.

It was an impressive and emotional victory for the Kasilof musher, who was diagnosed with cancer three days after finishing his first Iditarod earlier this year.

''Just being in the race is almost a miracle,'' said Mackey, 31, smiling and picking ice out of his frosted goatee. ''I'm happy. Things are coming together.''

It's been a harrowing year for the son of Iditarod legend Dick Mackey and half brother of Rick Mackey, winner of the 1983 Iditarod. Growing up in Alaska and mushing dogs since childhood, Mackey always enjoyed good health until the cancer struck.

Mackey underwent surgery on his neck and shoulder to remove what he described as a softball-sized lump. He finished seven weeks of radiation followed by six weeks of hyperbaric treatment, in which pure oxygen is pumped into the body, in September. The treatment affected Mackey's ability to swallow, so doctors inserted a tube that delivers liquid nourishment.

Weak but determined, Mackey started training for Sunday's race in early October. Normally he would start in July with the dogs pulling an ATV.

''The dogs keep me going. Otherwise this could be a major depressing thing,'' he said.

Mackey knew for several months before the Iditarod that something was wrong. He was tired a lot, began getting headaches and noticed a swelling in his neck close to his ear. Mackey had several physicians tell him it was likely a dental infection and that his symptoms didn't match up with cancer. They prescribed antibiotics, which he took for months to no avail.

''I was eating them like M&M's,'' Mackey said.

When another doctor finally told him he had squamous cell carcinoma, Mackey said he felt like killing the guy. After five other doctors told him it wasn't cancer, Mackey said he wasn't sure he should trust the sixth. But in his heart he knew the diagnosis was unfortunately accurate.

''He takes pain unlike anyone else I know. There's no whining,'' said Kathie Smith, Mackey's mother.

A small, thin woman wearing Carhartt overalls, Smith waited patiently in the cold to watch her eldest son cross the finish line at Beach Lake Trails in Chugiak. Smith has been a spectator at many sled dog races, but Sunday's was different. She viewed it as her son's triumphant comeback from a life-threatening illness.

''To me, having Lance every day is a blessing,'' she said.

Smith also cheered on another son, Jason, who crossed the finish line in fifth place.

Sipping a hot beverage after the race, Jason Mackey, 30, marveled at his brother's accomplishment despite a drop of sibling rivalry.

''I take my hat off to him. I tried to catch him. I tried to catch him real hard,'' he said, resting next to his brother's dog truck. ''It's awesome.''

Mackey is just about back to his normal weight and is eating some solid food. The doctors removed his saliva glands so he must drink lots of water. His sense of taste is beginning to return, Mackey said.

Mackey faces a mountain of medical bills. He didn't have insurance when the illness surfaced and Medicaid picked up only a portion of the treatment costs, he said. Mackey, who fished commercially for many years, isn't sure what he'll do for work. The surgery left him unable to lift his right arm over his head.

He's not too worried about it. The easygoing, gregarious musher said he has lots of people behind him, encouraging him every step of the way.

There's one thing he's sure about. Cancer will not take away his competitive edge. Is he planning to run the Iditarod this winter?

''Hell, yeah!'' Mackey said, grinning and with a look of incredulity on his face. ''I had a detour, but I'm not going to let it keep me down.''

Mackey's doctors are sponsoring him in the 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome, along with his Iditarider from last time.

''They said, If you think you can do it, we'll sponsor you,''' Mackey said.

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