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His determination outlives prognosis

(ran PC edition)

Diagnosed with a rare pancreatic cancer in 1983 and given only two years to live, Tony Handler made up his mind to cheat death.

He would do it with diet and exercise. He would turn a terminal illness into a reason to run triathlons.

"I can remember the doctor coming in after they discovered it and saying: "Well, we have good news and bad news. The bad news is that it's cancer.' The good news was that he'd seen people live as long as two years," Handler said. "That was the good news?"

It wasn't good enough for the husband and father of three.

"I decided, well, maybe if I got myself in shape I could do something about fighting the diagnosis."

Almost 20 years later, Handler has survived and thrived, working past six surgeries and an angioplasty to unclog a blocked coronary artery in 1998.

In the past 17 years, he has competed in more than 170 triathlons. He ran his first Ironman at age 61. (The race entailed a 2.5-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26-mile run.)

"I don't get hung up on how I place," said Handler, 63, a business systems analyst with AT&T in Tampa. "When I finish, it's like I've won another little battle."

Doctors at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., where he lived until 1988, are amazed, he said.

Handler's disease, called Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome, is extremely rare, said NIH Dr. Fathia Gibril. Perhaps two or three people out of 1-million are diagnosed each year with the disorder, which stems from a cancer called gastrinoma.

The slow-growing disease causes tumors in the pancreas and secretion of so much stomach acid that bleeding ulcers result. The stomach must sometimes be removed.

"Because it was so rare, people didn't know much about it," Gibril said. "Today we can say yes, there are people who live. Tony Handler lives."

Every year he returns for his experimental cancer treatment. Every month he heads to H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa for a special chemotherapy shot.

"My doctors tell me I'm a medical contradiction," he says, smiling. "I've got more wrong with me than 99 percent of the population. But physically I'm in better shape than 99 percent of the population."

Handler is still competing. He has read nutrition journals and traded in fast food and fried chicken for a low-fat regimen that includes fruits and vegetables.

He swims laps at the Hunter's Green tennis and athletics center. He bikes through Flatwoods Park and runs at work and at home _ year-round training that attracted him to New Tampa 14 years ago.

His support team includes his wife of 43 years, Narda, and members of the St. Petersburg Mad Dogs triathlon club, an international runner's society with an estimated 1,800 members (about 500 of whom live in Tampa Bay).

"I've known Tony probably eight or nine years," said Roger Burke of Seminole. "We didn't even know he had cancer until I put on this Relay for Life (two years ago) and he participated in the survivor's lap."

Handler, a.k.a. Mad Dog No. 240, still has hard days. When doctors ordered the angioplasty in 1998, they also discovered a congenital heart problem that prevents his aortic valve from functioning properly.

Handler is downgrading to marathons and 5K runs for now.

Not so bad for a guy who wasn't supposed to make it past 1985, said Handler, who attributes his miracle to attitude, exercise and eating right.

"I'm still here and still doing triathlons, so it must be doing something," he said of his regimen.