Day by day. That’s how Kikkan Randall is approaching her battle with breast cancer after being diagnosed about three months ago. Now more than 50 days into her treatment — with six rounds of chemotherapy over an 18-week span — Randall, 35, is becoming more familiar with the ugly side effects and adjusting to her new normal.
While beating what is believed to be Stage 2 cancer remains the Olympic gold medalist’s biggest challenge yet, it’s not dampening her spirits — even on the extremely rough days, of which there have been many.
After Round 2 of chemo, Randall returned to her family in their new home of Penticton, British Columbia, where she quickly came down with a nasty cold. That cold required a visit to a local clinic and antibiotics, and Randall now wears a mask on airplanes to fend off germs while flying to and from her cancer treatments in Anchorage, Alaska.
“Getting the head cold on top of going through the worst days of the chemo cycle has definitely been one of the most uncomfortable weeks of my life,” Randall explained in an email to FasterSkier. “It’s mostly because I have no control and I have no idea how well my immune system can clear the cold. Normally I would be optimistic that it would just be a tough couple of days but now I just have to wait and wait.”
She eventually kicked the cold and got her voice back, just in time for Round 3 of chemo on Aug. 22. After what she called a “quick 36-hour trip to Anchorage,” she was back in Penticton on Aug. 23. So far, Randall explained on her daily video blogs that her current three-week round is going better than the previous two.
“Just getting used to my haircut … got a nice little fuzz growing on top,” she said in her Day 51 video posted last Wednesday, just over a month after she shaved her head for the first time.
“Definitely giving me a greater appreciation for all the guys out there and gals that deal with this,” she continued with a smile. “But I have to say it is pretty low maintenance so I guess I should just embrace it.”
Two weeks after receiving her first chemo infusion in July, Randall noticed she was losing her hair in clumps. She promptly went wig shopping with friends and scheduled an appointment with her hairdresser in Anchorage to get ahead of the hair loss.
Randall spoke with FasterSkier on the phone from Anchorage on July 26, the day after she initially asked her hairdresser to shave it all off.
“I sat in the chair and she said, ‘Are you ready?’ and I said, ‘Let’s do it,’ ” Randall recalled. “Three minutes later, I had a buzz cut, and I think I actually handled it better than I thought I would. It was kind of interesting to watch it, to feel it, and to be like, OK, now we’ve got that taken care of. Now we can move onto the next step.”
The next step and every passing day has proved to be an unknown. Oncologists never know exactly how a patient will react to treatment, as “everybody seems to react differently,” Randall explained.
“But in a lot of cases what you experience the first round is what you will generally feel like over the next subsequent rounds,” she continued. “Some of it will be a little bit cumulative, like the fatigue I’m sure will add up a little bit, but I also really think that staying active through this as much as I can will really help. I’ve noticed already that even on days where I don’t feel very good, if I get out and do something, it at least keeps my mind off of how bad I feel and I think it helps me process everything better, both physically and mentally.”
As she approaches the halfway point of her chemo treatment — the first proactive step to eradicate the cancer (which was initially found in her breast and one lymph node), Randall has continued to make an effort to get outside and moving every day. Some days, that’s as much as a run with former training buddies or even intervals, and other days, it’s about playing with her 2-year-old son, Breck.
Ever since announcing her diagnosis on social media, Randall has been promoting AKTIV Against Cancer, a Norwegian nonprofit that she became involved with six or seven years ago without having any direct ties to cancer. According to Randall, the organization funds research on how physical activity can affect cancer treatment and creates supportive environments for patients to work out together, both in and out of the hospital.
“It falls along with what I believe is that physical activity is pretty much good for everything, so I was happy to support them as an athlete, but now that I actually have cancer myself, I have a little deeper connection,” she said. “I’ve committed personally to staying as active as I can through this, but I think in partnering with them, we can share the message on a bigger platform, and I’m looking forward to learning more about the research that they’ve done and also to continue to fundraise and promote awareness for getting other hospitals to have these places and rooms and programs that encourage cancer patients to be active.”
“I’ve committed personally to staying as active as I can through this…” — Kikkan Randall, on her cancer diagnosis
Randall continues to ride her bike to and from the Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage. During a recent layover, she worked out in a Vancouver gym. And early in the treatment, she asked if she could use a stationary bike or treadmill during the several-hour-long infusions. While her oncologist and nurses ultimately encouraged her not to (“the nurses felt it would be hard to keep an eye on me for any reactions I might have to the medication”), the bottom line is: Randall is still plugging away at a rate that would put most people to shame.
After her last round of chemo in mid November, she’s hoping tests will reveal that her tumor has shrunk or disappeared altogether. That would make surgery “more straightforward”, she explained, yet she’ll still have to decide which type of surgery to undergo. Her options range from a lumpectomy (removal of the tumor and some surrounding tissue) to a unilateral or bilateral mastectomy (removal of one or both breasts).
“If you do the double [mastectomy], the idea is you’re taking out the most breast tissue as possible, which is where a second breast cancer would most likely come back so it gives you a slightly better piece of mind,” Randall explained. “You don’t have to be screened quite as much after the fact because there isn’t breast tissue for it to come back to, and then from there, you can decide whether you go the double route and wear prosthetics or whether you go a reconstruction route … so there’s a lot to consider between now and then between what I want to do for maintaining the lifestyle and all the activities I want to do.”
Through all of this, she’s learned that her tumor responds to estrogen, progesterone and HER2 (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2)/neu protein, and is initially being treated with two chemo drugs to specifically target the HER2/neu. That should help stop the growth of the tumor, and after chemo, Randall will start taking anti-estrogen and anti-progesterone meds.
Leading up to all of this, she and her husband had been hoping to expand their family.
“We were just starting to try for kid number two and definitely excited to have more kids so finding out about this thing, the diagnosis, and then knowing I needed to start chemo pretty soon, we didn’t have much of a window to work with,” she explained of her diagnosis in early June.
Later that month, before starting chemo in July, she sought fertility treatment in Seattle. There, Randall received a round of injections to stimulate egg production in her ovaries. That produced one embryo, which is being preserved in case the cancer treatment makes pregnancy difficult later on.
“There’s no guarantee that the chemo will knock out my natural fertility, but it’s nice to know that there’s at least a small chance for the future,” Randall said. “It’s going to be challenging because the type of breast cancer that I have, I will have to be on some anti-estrogen and anti-hormone treatment for probably five to ten years even after the chemo and everything is done, so that’s going to be a little bit tricky to figure out a pregnancy in there, but at least we kind of have a backup plan.”
While Randall repeats her multiple-leg commute between Penticton and Anchorage (a 1- to 1.5-hour drive from Penticton to Kelowna, B.C., followed by a two-stop, roughly 4.5-hour flight to Anchorage) every three weeks, she’s also staying involved in several work engagements, including with Fast and Female and as a new board member of the National Nordic Foundation.
“I’ve definitely had to say no to some things,” she said. For instance, she had to turn down an opportunity to be in a Warren Miller movie featuring the U.S. Ski Team (which was recently filmed in New Zealand) and a trip to the 2018 Summer Youth Olympics in October in Buenos Aires, Argentina, as an International Olympic Committee (IOC) Athletes’ Commission member.
“Everyone’s been so supportive, like the IOC, the USOC [U.S. Olympic Committee], they’ve been telling me to take as much time to make my health the number-one concern, and the same with Fast and Female, we wanted to get some stuff going this summer and fall and we’ve just had to postpone it a little bit,” she said in July. “The door’s open if I have the energy to work on some of that stuff, but if I can’t, I have the time to just focus on recovery. … And then the period after surgery is kind of up in the air in terms of what I’ll be able to do. I’m just trying to be creative; I’m hoping to be able to do stuff, maybe not as much in person but maybe I can contribute to things, whether it’s writing or interviews or projects. I’m just going to ride it out and see where it goes.”
Back in Penticton, her husband, Jeff Ellis, has been “doing the single dad thing”, as Randall put it, while she’s away for treatment. As she retired from racing this spring, Ellis transitioned from his marketing job with the International Ski Federation to sales and marketing with Swagman bike racks. He initially took some time off from Swagman when Randall was first diagnosed before deciding to leave his job and be home full time.
“Ultimately when Jeff said, ‘Hey, this has put things into perspective for us. I need to be home to help Kikkan out,’ they were definitely very understanding of that,” Randall said of Swagman.
Ellis recently started his own business as an independent marketing contractor, called the Jeffrey MW Ellis Group.
“He’s actually helping me with the ‘Kikkan Brand’ while I’m going through treatment and he’s picked up a few more small clients as well,” Randall explained.
Asked why she went public with the diagnosis in early July and what’s driven her daily video updates every day since, Randall said she never could have kept it private.
“I’m not very good at faking things, so I knew once I showed up in Anchorage when I wasn’t supposed to be here, people would start to ask questions and wonder what was going on and I was going to have to start bowing out of things,” she said. “I also felt like, especially Anchorage, especially Alaska, but really just so many people have supported me through my career and they really care what’s going on. So I kind of felt like they’d want to know what was going on with me. It’s always good to celebrate the good things, but I think it’s also important to share the really human moments, and I thought it was really good to show that you could be an Olympic gold medalist and four months later find out you have breast cancer.
“I think it’s important for a lot of people out there that are battling through this, it makes them feel like, this happens to all of us,” she continued. “I learned 10 years ago when I shared my story about blood clots that it helped people. … I kind of felt like, if me going through this can have a positive impact by sharing my story, then I’m happy to do so. I don’t feel like there’s anything I need to hide; I’m willing to share this.”
“It’s always good to celebrate the good things, but I think it’s also important to share the really human moments. … You could be an Olympic gold medalist and four months later find out you have breast cancer.”
One of Randall’s sponsors started a GoFundMe online fundraiser to help with some of her out-of-pocket medical and travel costs, and in a little over a month, it had generated more than $37,000 dollars toward a $45,000 goal. According to the site, any funds that exceed the associated expenses of Randall and her family will be donated to AKTIV Against Cancer.
“It’s been amazing,” Randall said of the community support in light of her diagnosis. “I got to come back after winning the gold medal, and of course I feel like our profile was higher than it had ever been — people were so excited and wishing me congratulations everywhere I went, but this has blown that out of the water. So many people have reached out, whether it’s over social media or messages through my website or cards arriving in the mail, people stopping me in the grocery store, they’re sharing their stories. Breast cancer’s way bigger of a deal than I ever appreciated.
“My traditional income as a ski racer was coming to an end anyway and I was going to be relying on being able to travel and do speaking engagements and things like that for some projects over the next year, and I won’t be able to do that now,” she said of the fundraiser. “It’s hard to put into words, but I just feel so supported. I’ve been reading through all those messages on the tough days and then trying to reach out to as many people as I can to say thanks.
“It’s unfortunate that it takes a situation like this to be able to appreciate the amount of people that do support me in that way,” Randall added. “But like I said, I’m blown away, I’m so grateful for it and it’s definitely going to help me through this.”