Confronted with cancer and costly medical bills, the four-time Iditarod winner presses on with help from friends and fans
ANCHORAGE - Four-time Iditarod champ Lance Mackey has nerves of steel and endless determination.
But his struggle to stay healthy and involved in sled dog racing nearly killed him.
It’s not every day the loudest and most enthusiastic cheers of the race go to the musher in last place. Then again, it’s not every day you see Lance Mackey cruising down Fourth Avenue in Downtown Anchorage for the Fur Rondy World Championship Sled Dog Races.
Everywhere Mackey goes, his adoring fans follow. One woman came all the way from England to see him race.
But Mackey wasn’t supposed to race at Fur Rondy. He’s in rough shape.
“I have a main artery in my neck that sticks out that’s very vulnerable,” Mackey says. “I can only lift my arm [shoulder] high and I have limited mobility. I have no saliva glands; I’m kind of a wreck.”
In October, Mackey’s teeth became infected. But every dentist he visited in Alaska refused to operate on him.
Frustrated, Mackey went to Mexico for treatment.
“All those teeth became infected and unbeknownst to me it was becoming life threatening so to speak.”
Mackey talks with his lips closed and refuses to smile for pictures with fans. It’s because he had all of his teeth removed.
It’s just the latest blip in a long battle for his health. In the 2001 Iditarod, Mackey raced with what he thought was an abscessed tooth. Turns out, it was cancer.
“I was told I’d never race dogs again, that I wasn’t going to live through this whole ordeal in the first place,” he said. “I’m pretty proud of the things I’ve accomplished for not being able to live.”
Mackey came back with a vengeance. He won the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest in the same year. Then he won both those races three more times.
He’s the most decorated and successful musher Alaska has ever seen. But for all his fame and fortune, Mackey is broke. In fact, he’s more than just broke; he’s up to ears in debt.
“I had almost $700,000 worth of medical bills and no insurance,” he said.
All of Mackey’s $400,000 prize money went to pay his bills. Discouraged, Mackey wondered if he picked the right profession.
“What? How could Lance Mackey even think for a moment that he’s in the wrong profession?” asked Kirsten Ballard.
The thought of Mackey doing anything but mushing angers Ballard. As a fellow musher and dog lover, she knows how talented Mackey is. Now, she’s rallying other Alaskans to help out.
“He’s our son of Alaska, he’s a great athlete, a great champion and he needed some help, so I decided to give him some help.”
So far, the fundraising site Ballard created has raised nearly $30,000.
Mackey says he’s embarrassed by all the generosity, mostly from total strangers.
“I’m just a poor white boy living in a hill in a shack in Fairbanks, Alaska with my 60 closest friends,” Mackey says.
Love for his dogs, love for his sport and love for the life he says was saved by both.
Every time he crosses the finish line, Mackey says he feels like he’s won the real race. The race for a life that’s cancer free.
Mackey says he’ll retire when he wins the Iditarod with 15 dogs, a feat that has never been accomplished before. If you’d like to meet Mackey, there will be a fundraiser on Friday night at the Down East Saloon in Homer.