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Sunday, August 6, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Four-time winner of Iditarod loses battle with cancer

Seattle Times staff reporter

Susan Butcher, four-time winner of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, was determined to conquer her leukemia, just as she had triumphed over the grueling 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome.

Despite her fighting spirit, though, she couldn't overcome the cascade of medical complications that eventually overtook her. Butcher, 51, died Saturday afternoon at the University of Washington Medical Center, where she had undergone a stem-cell transplant about two months ago.

When Butcher first developed leukemia, late last year, she worried about who was going to take care of her beloved dogs in Alaska while she got treatment, said Dr. Jan Abkowitz, head of the division of hematology at the UW and one of a team of doctors who cared for Butcher during her treatment there through the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

An "incredible network of spectacular friends" stepped up, said Abkowitz, who wasn't surprised.

"This was a truly amazing person," she said. "She was extremely insightful and sensitive and exciting. She just had an amazing way of communicating with people and inspiring them."

For years, women and men around the world were drawn to the adventures of Butcher, a young woman struggling to win the classic (wo)man-against-nature race, pitting mushers against Alaska's blizzards, wildlife and frostbite. In 1985, she was forced to withdraw from the race when a rampaging moose killed two of her dogs and severely injured six others. That year, Libby Riddles braved a storm to became the first woman to win the Iditarod.

But Butcher came back strong the next year, winning the race. And she won again in 1987, 1988 and 1990. In 1989, she placed second.

Information


Susan Butcher's Web page: www.susanbutcher.com.

Academy of Achievement interview with Susan Butcher: www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/but0int-1

Butcher inspired a popular slogan: "Alaska — Where Men are Men and Women Win the Iditarod."

"I do not know the word 'quit.' Either I never did it, or I have abolished it," she once said.

Butcher, who helped drive the first sled-dog team to the top of 20,320-foot Mount McKinley in 1979, retired from the Iditarod in 1994 when she decided to have children with her husband, attorney and fellow musher David Monson. They had two daughters, Tekla and Chisana.

About three years ago, Butcher was diagnosed with polycythemia vera, a rare disease that causes the bone marrow to produce excess red-blood cells, said Abkowitz. In a small percentage of patients, that disease becomes acute leukemia.

A series of chemotherapy treatments put her leukemia into remission, Abkowitz said.

But Butcher knew it would return, and "she wanted to take the chance of a cure," Abkowitz said.

Butcher opted for a stem-cell transplant with an experimental regimen, she said.

The transplant was uneventful, Abkowitz said, but resulted in a serious complication — the transplanted cells attacked her body, a complication known as graft-versus-host disease.

Late in July, a routine sample of her bone marrow revealed the leukemia had come back. It was a particularly aggressive mutation, Abkowitz said.

On Butcher's Web site, where her husband and others have detailed Butcher's treatment, her husband said doctors gave them two options: Go home and be with her family, or start over with new rounds of chemotherapy. "We know the path ahead will not be easy and the dangers are great, but the first option is not an option for us. Susan has always been a fighter and if there is a chance that she could be with her girls to see them grow up, she will take it, and she did."

Saturday evening, David Monson said his family was "deeply grateful and moved by the incredible outpouring of support we've had this last three months from the people of Seattle." People gave them a place to stay, gave them rides to the hospital and "left meals on our doorstep without saying who did it, and took in our children when they needed it," Monson said. "Everybody in this town should be proud of the place they live."

Despite Butcher's accomplishments as a musher, she was most proud of being "the best mom she could be," Monson said, struggling with tears. "That trumped everything else she did in life. She was so proud of her girls."

Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or costrom@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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