Marrow sought for Iditarod champ

Susan Butcher hopes campaign will benefit others fighting cancer

Posted: Friday, December 30, 2005

ANCHORAGE - Iditarod champion Susan Butcher was looking forward to running a 300-mile sled dog race this winter, but leukemia knocked her off the trail.

When asked Thursday about her strategy for beating cancer, she sounded every bit like the tough competitor she is - the same woman with the drive to four times win the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the longest sled dog race in the world.

"Now my goal is to try and stay alive and fight leukemia," she said from her hospital room in Seattle. "No questions asked, that's what I am going to do."

Butcher knows she can't fight leukemia alone. She is hoping that thousands of Alaskans will come forward Friday for a blood drive so she, or someone else, can receive a lifesaving bone marrow transplant.

While her doctors have not talked specifics with her about finding a match, it could be 1 in 20,000 to 1 in 50,000, according to the Blood Bank of Alaska.

With about 50 cases of acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) diagnosed in Alaska each year, Butcher is hoping the drive helps somebody - maybe even one of the several other Alaskans with leukemia on her hall at Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

If not that, she hopes the drive will help Native Alaskans by registering more potential donors for them. The best bone marrow matches are found in people with similar genetic backgrounds.

"The whole drive is for the Native Alaskans. Right now on this ward I am on, there's four out of eight who are Alaskans, all down here with leukemia," she said.

About 12,000 people are diagnosed with AML each year.

Butcher knows she is lucky. She is white. It's much harder to find a good bone marrow match for Native Alaskans. They make up less than 1 percent of the 5.5 million people on the national registry of donors.

"The thing is when you enter this facility they give you hope. They give you lots of different ways to try and survive your leukemia," she said. "They have told me stories of Native Alaskans that have come here and they don't have hope. If you don't have hope, what do you have?"

The Blood Bank of Alaska and General Communication Inc., an Anchorage-based company that helps sponsor the Iditarod, are holding the blood/bone marrow drive on Friday for Butcher and another Alaskan, 30-year-old Michael Donaldson who is in immediate need of a transplant.

The drive is being held at blood bank centers at locations in Anchorage, Fairbanks, the Kenai Peninsula and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. GCI is donating $32,500 to pay for the first 500 tests. The blood bank is prepared to pick up the cost of more tests, said Gregg Schomaker, director of donor collections for the blood bank.

He said the blood bank has about 1,800 kits on hand to do the testing. If more people show up than available tests, another drive will be planned, Schomaker said.

Only about 30 percent of people find a good match within their family. The others have to try and find one, he said.

About a pint of blood, and one extra vial, will be taken from potential donors. It can take up to two months to get results, Schomaker said.

Butcher, 51, was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia on Dec. 2. She entered the hospital four days later.

She's hoping that not only will the drive be a success but she gets good news about an important test on Friday. The test will show whether the chemotherapy she has been receiving has killed all the cancer cells, at least temporarily.

If the news is good, she plans to leave her isolation room at the hospital and return to Alaska for awhile, even go out on the trail for a brief run with her dogs if the doctors say it's OK.

On Thursday, she put in about 45 minutes on an elliptical trainer in her hospital room.

"I have to be fit so when I go home next month I can do some mushing," she said.

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