On Friday, The Down East Saloon will host a potluck fundraiser for Lance Mackey. The Lance Mackey: Alaska mushing legend, four-time Iditarod winner, four-time Yukon Quest winner and still the only musher to run and win both the Iditarod and Yukon Quest in the same year.
One of Alaska’s toughest athletes is fighting a long, drawn-out battle with the after-effects of cancer treatment.
“I’ve been going through this process since 2001,” says the 43-year-old Mackey in a telephone interview. “The most difficult part of it is running around with no teeth.”
Mackey was diagnosed with throat cancer after completing his first Iditarod. Quickly afterward, he underwent extensive surgery to remove the cancerous tissue from his face and neck including his salivary glands, molars and most of a muscle that supported his right arm.
After surgery came radiation treatments where he lost more teeth and suffered more damage to his jawbone and the nerves that connect to his hands and feet.
Mackey has health insurance, but it doesn’t cover the cost of oral surgery or dentistry. Nor does it cover the cost of travel from his Fairbanks home and kennel. Instead, he’s paying out-of-pocket for the costly treatments to rebuild his mouth and for the travel to and from specialists in Anchorage.
“I have a set of dentures but they’re not an easy fix,” says Mackey. “During the first night of Fur Rondy, my dentures kept falling out so I had to take them out. Without salivary glands, dentures don’t work.”
Friends and fans of Mackey’s have stepped in to help. Homer resident Maka Fairman is organizing the fundraiser at the Down East Saloon this Friday.
“I’ve known Lance since he was a child up in Coldfoot,” she says. “He’s an Alaskan champion, a hero. He’s a very strong, resilient person who’s fought hard for everything he has. I want to do what I can to get him up and racing again.”
“If I didn’t have dogs, I’d be rich,” Mackey explains. “I have sponsors and prize winnings but the cost of racing is high and prize winnings don’t go far.”
Dog sled racing isn’t a lucrative business. One musher calculated the cost of participating in the Iditarod to be more than $16,000. That’s just the race. It doesn’t include the cost of building your team to get there.
Dog food alone costs Mackey upward of $30,000 a year even with an in-kind donation from a dog food company.
Mackey is sitting out the big distance races this season.
“There’s no way to train and race while dealing with this,” said Mackey. “It would be half-arsed at best.”
Instead, he’s taking the time to get himself back in fighting form. He recently finished a course of hyperbaric treatments to strengthen and rebuild his damaged jawbone so that dental implants might be possible without an expensive and invasive bone graft.
He’s also raising a set of puppies destined to become his next great team. He brought the group of 1-year-olds down to the Fur Rendezvous Open World Championships in Anchorage this past weekend. He asked to be the last musher to start so that his young team wouldn’t get in the way of the professional sprinters.
They finished the race second to last, better than Mackey expected.
Mackey and his girlfriend, classical cellist and singer/songwriter, Sabre Flores, will be in Homer on Friday.
“We’re going to make our way down to thank Maka and everyone in person,” says Mackey. “It’s pretty amazing to think that people in Homer would step up to help.”
The Lance Mackey Fundraiser is on Friday at the Down East Saloon beginning at 3 p.m. Sabre Flores will perform and Mackey will speak about life on the trails. Bring a covered dish to share. There will be an auction at 7 p.m. Cash or checks are accepted.
More information about Mackey, including opportunities to sponsor a Comeback Pup can be found at: www.mackeyscomebackkennel.com.
Sarah Richardson is a freelance writer and the author of the blog “Becoming Alaskan — Life at the End of the Road.” She and her husband, Bill, and their two children live in Homer.
Lance Mackey Fundraiser
Where: Down East Saloon
What: Potluck (bring a covered dish to share), auction and a performance by Sabre Flores
Time: Event begins at 3 p.m. with an auction at 7 p.m.