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Post-surgery, community rallies around mushing legend Lance Mackey

Craig Medred
Four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey addresses the crowd during the 2012 Iditarod Musher's Banquet in Anchorage. Mackey is facing tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills following oral surgery to remove all his teeth, a result of throat cancer treatments in 2001. Photo by Loren Holmes

Alaskans are rallying to the aid of four-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champ Lance Mackey, now toothless as the result of damage ongoing for years after efforts to treat his life-threatening cancer in 2001. 

Then a struggling dog musher, carpenter and sometimes commercial fisherman, Mackey beat throat cancer, but post-operative radiation treatments killed his salivary glands and left him with a decaying jaw bone and some nerve damage down his arm.

He dealt with the immediate problems by having doctors amputate a non-functioning, in-the-way left index finger and carrying around a water bottle almost everywhere he went so he'd be able to wet his throat. And then he went about the hard work of becoming famous in the world of sled dog racing. 

In 2005, operating on a financial shoestring, he trained the team of dogs that won the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race -- a 1,000-mile slog from Whitehorse, in Canada's Yukon Territory, to Fairbanks, considered the second toughest (though some consider it the first) test in ultradistance sled-dog racing.

Everyone thought that quite a feat for a man who'd almost died only a few years earlier.

But Mackey was on the verge of rocking the world of sled dog racing. Two years later, he did what most knowledgeable dog racers thought impossible. He won the Quest again in February, and then in March, using many of the same dogs, won his first Iditarod.

Alaskans and dog mushing fans went crazy. Serious sled dog people thought it some sort of weird fluke. And then Mackey repeated the feat again the next year. All told, he won both the Quest and the Iditarod four times each between 2005 and 2010 and became a mushing legend before his star began to fade ever so slightly.

By that time, however, he was already in the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame.

Still, his body didn't much care what his perseverance and his dogs were able to overcome. His physical decay continued until doctors told him this month he was going to lose all of his teeth -- one way or another -- to that decaying jaw bone.

Mackey subsequently had the teeth pulled. He's now looking at more than $30,000 in costs, possibly far more, to rebuild his jawbone and get him some new teeth. He has no dental insurance. His Comeback Kennel has always been a low-budget operation. Sled dog racing is not a big money business.

Mackey said this week he doesn't know how he's going to pay for the facial repairs. Almost immediately, people were popping up to try to raise money.

Kirsten Ballard, another musher and skijorer, upon hearing the news quickly set up a webpage to help raise funds. You can find that page here.

"All funds raised are going straight to Lance, less the fees the websites are charging," she said.

"Why am I doing it?" she asked. "Because Lance won’t ask and because I care."

Another to rally to the Mackey cause -- Ed Gonzalez of Dillingham, in Southwest Alaska -- said he can't imagine it should be hard to help out the musher.

"Surely there are 30,000 Iditarod fans willing to give $1 each to help this musher," he said in an email.  

Time will tell. 

Want to help Lance? Visit the fundraising page here.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com