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Health problems, medical expenses mount for mushing legend Lance Mackey

Craig Medred
Four-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion Lance Mackey, pictured here at the 2013 Iditarod mushers' banquet, had his remaining teeth pulled Monday, a result of the lasting effects of cancer treatment. Mackey made history in 2007 as the first musher ever to win the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog race in the same year. Loren Holmes photo

A toothless Lance Mackey sits in Anchorage today far from the Iditarod Trail that made him famous, trying to figure out where to come up with $30,000 to pay for the latest fallout from his long bout with cancer.

While Texas' Lance Armstrong, once the most famous cancer survivor in the world and now the globe's most infamous sporting cheat, tours the world trying to put a new shine on his dirtied image and hopefully save his ill-begotten tens of millions of dollars in winnings, Alaska's Lance, the world-famous four-time Iditarod champ and 49th state's most famous cancer survivor, struggles to stay financially afloat -- and to eat.

Since his teeth were pulled on Monday, he said, he's been living on a diet of yogurt, soup, "anything that looks comparable to baby food," eggs, and biscuits and gravy.

"I love biscuits and gravy," he said, "but I don't want to live off it."

"People tell me I look fine," he added, but he doesn't buy it. He figures he looks just about as fine as any toothless old man.

His sense of humor still clearly intact during a telephone interview with Alaska Dispatch, Mackey did admit, "I have been whining a bit. I'm not going to lie."

The sled dog season is essentially over for him. There will be no Yukon Quest International Sled dog race in February, no Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in March. He might try to get into one or two smaller mid-distance races, but even that is iffy.

He does have dog handlers keeping his sled dogs running and in shape. He even has a team entered in the Copper Basin 300 Sled Dog Race, which starts Saturday in Glennallen. But he's not going to be there to run it.

One of his handlers plans to jump on the runners. They've been consulting by phone, Mackey said, adding that this is not the best way to do things.

Back when Mackey's throat cancer was treated in 2001, doctors warned him that there would be complications on down the trail. They removed his top and bottom molars during surgery at that time, and postoperative radiation treatment took a toll on his jawbone.

That led to teeth starting to fall out. He was down to three of his own when Iditarod started last year, and he lost one of those on the trail.

"I had some work done in Mexico earlier," he said, to put in crowns and posts, but that all eventually came apart, too.

"It's all the leftover aftermath of the radiation," he said. "My jawbone after the radiation and shit is very fragile."

Doctors are now telling him they might need to do a bone graft to rebuild the jawbone before they can give him artificial teeth. Before this week's surgery, Mackey said, he underwent 20 hyperbaric treatments aimed at saving the bone, and he is scheduled to do another 10. 

How he is going to pay for all of this he is unsure. He has medical insurance, but not dental. The medical insurance doesn't cover oral surgery.

"I've gotten all sorts of different leads on things," Mackey said. "They want to put in implants. Somebody said I could go to a university where they want a test dummy.

"But I really don't want to be a test dummy."

Costs are projected at $30,000 for his treatment but could go higher. Just the bill for two hours of oral surgery to pull his teeth on Monday was $8,100, he said.

"It's not nuts," he said. "It's not an easy one to swallow. I'm just a poor white boy."

The good news is that "whatever, they've taken out now, they can't at the moment refuse me treatment," he said, "but they certainly don't have to do any follow-up."

He doesn't relish the idea of going on for long without some sort of teeth, although he's in such a mess now that just getting healed up would be nice.

"My lips are all bruised," he said. "My throat is all bruised. I have stitches in my gums. I have stitches in my mouth. When I wake up in the morning, there is blood all over the pillow.

"But hell, I've been through this more than once. It is what it is.

"How do I feel? It depends on the day, but at the moment I'm all right."

Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com.