Sun, Jan 08, 2006 - Page 23 News List

Iditarod champion Susan Butcher now battling for her life


Susan Butcher is taking orders from her doctors these days, but there is no doubt who is really in charge -- the woman who won the punishing, 1,770km Iditarod dogsled race four times and once used an ax to fend off a crazed moose.

Butcher, 51, was diagnosed with leukemia in early last month and just completed her first round of chemotherapy in a grueling course of treatment that could test the physical and mental toughness she displayed time and again in the frozen wilderness.

"My goal is to try and stay alive and fight leukemia," she said last week. "No questions asked, that's what I am going to do."

Butcher has run the world's longest dogsled race 17 times, finishing the Anchorage-to-Nome trek every year except 1985, when the moose stomped her team of huskies, killing two dogs and injuring 13. She was leading at the time, and the attack probably cost her the championship.

But she got her revenge. She came back the next year for the first of three straight victories. Butcher's fourth win came in 1990. But in recent years, she has focused more on raising a family. A mother of two girls, ages five and 10.

Her husband, Dave Monson, a fellow musher she met at the Iditarod in 1981, said his wife's real strength is mental.

"She's broken through the ice and water," he said. "She has been lost in storms, dragged down a hill." But when faced with an obstacle, "she evaluates it, comes up with a plan and overcomes it without getting discouraged."

Butcher, who lives in Fairbanks, was hospitalized on Dec. 6 at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle for the start of what is expected to be seven months of treatment, preparing for the ordeal by selling off some of her beloved huskies and placing others with friends.

After more chemo, she will need a bone marrow transplant. A drive announced last week in Alaska to find a donor drew more than 1,200 people, but it could be more than a month before it is known whether one of them is a good match.

Butcher has acute myelogenous leukemia. The five-year survival rate for patients is about 20 percent, according to the US Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Monson said his wife's chances will improve with a transplant.

During her first round of chemo, Butcher's doctors said there would be days when she would not be able to use an elliptical trainer in her hospital room. Butcher proved the doctors wrong.

"At my lowest point, I managed a minute and 37 seconds," she said.

A bone marrow biopsy last week showed her responding so well to treatment that she was released from the hospital on the condition she return for more chemo in a month.

Butcher is looking forward to taking her dog team for a run.

Will her doctors allow that?

"They haven't managed to dare to come in and tell me what I am allowed to do and what I'm not allowed to do," she said last week. "I think I'm strong enough."

The side effects from the chemo have included nausea, high fevers, infections from her intravenous lines, and extreme fatigue.

As for which is tougher -- battling leukemia or competing in the Iditarod -- Butcher said she can't really compare the two.

"Running the Iditarod is a choice and something I loved doing, and I never considered the things I was going through hardships. I knew they were hard, and there were some really tough times," she said.

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