Cancer doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care that you are young, ridiculously healthy and making ‘all the right choices’ when it comes to eating and exercise. It doesn’t even care if you’re a gold medal-winning Olympian.
Anchorage’s Kikkan Randall is a five-time Olympian, nine-time World Championship team member, whose determination and grit has broken new trail for the next generation of cross country skiers in Alaska and around the globe. In her mid-30s, she received a diagnosis no woman wants — stage two invasive ductal carcinoma, also present in a lymph node. Yes, it was an early stage, doctors told her, but it also was an aggressive cancer.
“It was a shock,” Randall said. “I was in disbelief that this was even a possibility. I was feeling so good. I took good care of my body. I did all the right things. I avoided the things doctors say to avoid. I was super strong and happy.”
Suddenly, her world was turned upside down.
She was just months off having ended her skiing career. It was a major high note – she and her teammate, Jessie Diggins, won the gold medal in women’s team sprint freestyle in Feb. 2018 at the Pyeongchang Olympic Games in South Korea. The pair were the first American women to win a gold medal in a cross country skiing event.
But now it was Mother’s Day weekend.
She and husband, Jeff Ellis, and their young son, Breck, were finally settling in to their new home in Penticton, British Columbia, Canada. Ellis had landed a terrific job as a sales and marketing director for a bike rack company a year earlier. Randall was busy creating her new professional life which also included her recent appointment to an eight-year term to the International Olympic Committee.
The family had gone on a nice hike on Mother’s Day. It was bedtime and Randall felt a hard spot where one simply shouldn’t be.
“It didn’t feel right,” she recalled. “At that moment, I was sure it was nothing, but I did decide to get it checked out.”
The next day, she went to a local hospital where a mammography department was located. Canada’s socialized medical system required a referral. Being a newcomer to Canada, she didn’t have a primary doctor there. It would be a couple of weeks before a mammogram and an ultrasound could be scheduled.
“I definitely had a sinking feeling about it all,” Randall said. “But I tried to put it out of my mind.”
The family spent the Memorial Day weekend in the Bellingham, Washington area for the ‘Ski to Sea’ festival and race that Ellis had been participating in for the past few years. Bellingham is located near the Canadian border in western Washington. It would be an easy couple hours’ drive back to Penticton for the mammogram and ultrasound on Memorial Day itself.
“That’s not a holiday in Canada,” she reminded.
The results were concerning enough that doctors opted to do a biopsy immediately. There wasn’t time to wait as Randall was leaving the next day for a week-long trip to Sweden for a friend’s wedding.
“I knew it was a bit more serious, but I went to the wedding anyway and tried my best to stay in the moment of all the joy that was happening with that,” she recalled.
She was in Sweden when she got the call from the radiologist back in Penticton. She cut her trip short to just three days – enough time to be there for the wedding; enough time to get herself back to Canada to figure out what the treatment plan would be.
She was Googling like mad.
“I was to learn as much as I could,” she said. “I needed to figure it all out.”
Fortunately, mom was visiting and was able to help balance Randall’s first few days back as her toddler jostled for her attention and a flurry of follow-up doctor’s appointments were necessary.
Trouble was, she wasn’t qualified yet to receive health care in Canada. And the cost of treatment out-of-pocket was simply not feasible.
Her health insurance through the U.S. Olympic Committee was about to expire, but once officials learned of Randall’s situation, the decision was quickly made to extend her coverage so she could receive treatment.
But, yet another catch: That treatment would have to occur on U.S. soil.
There were numerous choices of where to receive treatment.
She knew of the cancer treatment center at the Providence Alaska Medical Center. Being treated there would equate to more time away from her husband and son than she wanted. It also meant she would have an incredible support network between her family, friends and local fans.
“My first thought was Alaska,” Randall said.
She started making phone calls and linked up quickly with a breast surgeon and an oncologist. They were willing to talk to her over the phone – something she knew was fairly unheard of. Pretty soon medical records were being faxed to Alaska.
She did talk to other doctors at other well-known cancer centers across the United States.
What they were recommending was the same as the consults from Alaska.
It was a comforting sign.
“I was really happy that I could confidently go back to Alaska and get me treatment there where I would feel most comfortable,” Randall said.
But first, she had to make a trip to Seattle to a fertility clinic.
Chances were good that the six rounds of chemotherapy Randall would do at Providence could negatively impact her fertility. She and Ellis wanted more children.
There wasn’t much time before she was to begin chemotherapy in July 2018.
It was fast-paced, but she and Ellis were able to complete one round of IVF (In vitro fertilization) that produced nine eggs – six of which were viable. Those led to five embryos, but only three survived the first week. Of those three, one lone embryo showed the least potential for miscarriage once implanted.
That would have to wait. That embryo already has a nickname: Little Frosty.
It was time to put aside future pregnancy plans and focus on getting through chemotherapy.
The plan was to complete six rounds every three weeks. It was going to be grueling.
But Randall was determined to take this challenge on with the same level of dedication she had in pursuing Olympic gold.
Her husband saw a unique opportunity to further brand Randall, who was already active in supporting various women’s cancer groups. He saw a way for her to share her story with her fan base and create opportunities to increase her presence as a motivational speaker.
They, as a couple, would create a social media platform for her fans to follow her progress through cancer treatment. It would provide just enough access to tastefully chosen scenes so to keep her fan base informed of her progress.
From pictures of her picking out wigs with her besties from Anchorage to photos of her longtime hairdresser shaving her head, to photos of Randall napping under a pretty floral blanket, to her kicking butt on a treadmill and rollerblading up the Anchorage Hillside to poignant photos of her and Breck, her fans were able to visually walk alongside her without violating her privacy.
Not only did folks follow her in droves, it also raised awareness of organizations that Randall supports including the group, “Fast and Female,” with the mission of getting and keeping girls involved in sports – a topic that is near and dear to Randall.
This summer she is a guest speaker on Princess Cruises from Vancouver to Ketchikan. Audience members will hear about how she went cross country skiing in Hatcher Pass shortly after her lumpectomy. Her surgeon wasn’t thrilled, but the surgeon’s assistant had given the green light so long as Randall didn’t use a pole in her right hand. They will hear about her journey through losing her golden tresses with their pink tips, including the shedding on the balcony at the right Dena’ina Center directly after her speaking engagement for the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation. Mostly though, they will hear about the ups and downs of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation complimented by her intentional decision to remain as positive as possible throughout her journey.
Longtime fans remember and know that Randall’s choice of socks during her skiing career was nothing less than way colorful. It stood out against the snow and showed race watchers her fun side.
Her online store features men’s and women’s colorful socks made by Darn Tough Vermont that now serve a different purpose. Proceeds from the socks support AKTIV Against Cancer. It is another of Randall’s passions. The organization promotes the role that physical activity plays in battling cancer.
“Going through treatment and committing to staying active I believe is one of the main reasons I have done as well as I have,” Randall said. “I hope that people can see they can stay active during their treatment.”
She did just that by posting daily video logs for 160 days during her treatment. Ellis played a major role in creating those blogs, posting and sharing on Randall’s Instagram. It helped her to stay motivated. It helped her to be real about what she was going through.
“It always made me feel better having to listen to my own words,” she said.
Learn more about Kikkan Randall at her website: www.kikkan.com.
Reach Amy Armstrong via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.