KENAI, Alaska (KTUU) - Veteran Iditarod musher Paul Gebhardt says he remains upbeat, despite being diagnosed with a form of cancer called multiple myeloma, which attacks blood cells, bone and the immune system.
"In the whole big picture of it, I think I've got a different outlook of how things are" Gebhardt said in an interview in Kenai. "Little things don't seem like they bother you as much. It's just a matter of staying healthy and getting back to what I was, so I can do what I love to do."
Gebhardt and his teams have competed in 21 Iditarods, and he's finished in second place twice.
During the 2017 Iditarod, Gebhardt told a Channel 2 News crew at the Kalskag checkpoint that he was experiencing back pain, but he thought at the time it was just from the physical strain of the race. He would later learn that the pain was a symptom of the cancer, which had not been diagnosed yet.
Gebhardt said he didn't feel well for most of the summer. "My ribs started hurting. I thought I had just tweaked a muscle or a tendon or something in between them." he said.
In September, an accident happened that may have saved Paul Gebhardt's life. He fell off his horse.
When he suffered intense pain from the fall that would not subside, Gebhardt said his doctor sent him to the hospital for tests. "He (the doctor) came into the emergency room and he's pale as a sheet, and I looked at him and he said, 'I got some bad news.'" Gebhardt said. The bad news was the cancer diagnosis.
Gebhardt says he began chemotherapy six days after the cancer diagnosis, and that the treatment has actually made him feel better.
He had no idea he had cancer, and the diagnosis came as a shock, he says. "It's just like somebody kicks you in the back of the knees, when you're standing there, and you're like 'what the heck?'" he said.
After his chemotherapy is complete, the next phase will likely come early next year, when Gebhardt will travel to Seattle for treatment using his own stem cells to repair his immune system. He says he will have to be in isolation for two months to avoid catching potentially deadly infections.
Gebhardt says his fellow mushers are rallying around him. "The mushers, they are all supporting me 100 percent. It kind of makes you feel good inside that there's that many people that care." he said.
Donations are also coming in to a GoFundMe account set up to help with his medical and travel expenses, not covered by insurance.
"I really appreciate all the support from everybody" Gebhardt said, with his voice shaking with emotion. "That's amazing. It warms my heart. and like I said, I want to be back on a sled again."
Paul Gebhardt will not be able to race in the 2018 Iditarod, but his dog team will. He says the core of his team will race with his friend and fellow musher, Ray Redington, Jr.
Even though he will be out of action for the upcoming race, Paul Gebhardt says the one thing he won't do is give up.
"It doesn't exist in my kennel and it doesn't exist with me. The word 'quit' is not used at my place" he said.