‘The old Kikkan’ gives way to cancer treatment and hair loss

Part 2, July: Cancer begins to reshape Kikkan Randall’s identity, changing her gold medal persona.

Second of six parts

Weeks before Kikkan Randall felt ready to share her new reality with the public, even some former teammates, she shared it with a customs officer at the U.S.-Canada border.

In May, Randall was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, a form of breast cancer. It was discovered in a lymph node too, she found out later, meaning her cancer was stage 2.

But the world still thought of her as only a ski champion. She had just finished a 20-year cross-country skiing career by winning America’s first Olympic gold medal in the sport. It would take time before she was ready to break the spell.

Kikkan Randall, Olympian, breast cancer, cross country skiing

In June, when few people knew, Randall felt like a drug smuggler at the border, as she crossed to fetch fertility drugs that a clinic couldn’t ship to her new home in Canada. In the overwhelming weeks before chemotherapy began, she hoped to preserve her chances for more children by storing embryos.

“As soon as I said breast cancer, he just went white,” she said of the border official. “And he kind of went, ‘You can go.’ ”

Her cancer remained difficult to discuss, even after she announced the news on social media in July. Weeks later, she spoke to a business luncheon at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center. It had been her plan after retiring from racing to bring audiences the identity she later referred to as “the old Kikkan.” She wanted to tell the story of the long road to triumph.

Kikkan Randall, Olympian, breast cancer, cross country skiing

On stage, Randall described the weight of disappointment from the Sochi Olympics, where she had been expected to win a medal, and how that setback motivated her success four years later. She bit her lip, barely containing her smile as a highlight reel from Pyeongchang played. She held the room of 1,500 in rapt attention.

She only made mention of breast cancer 19.5 minutes into the 21-minute speech.

“I’m fresh off my career, winning a gold medal. There’s just so many fun things to talk about from that,” she said afterward. “And I’m just beginning this breast cancer journey.”

Randall returned to her seat during a standing ovation. After the event ended and the crowd thinned, she ran her fingers through her hair, then dropped a clump to the convention center’s patio floor. A moment she had been thinking about for weeks had arrived.

“It’s happening,” she said.

Randall had already picked out a wig.

Days after she announced she had cancer, five friends joined her at Fashion Wigs, in the Northway Mall. She was still adjusting to the emotional whiplash of the winter and spring. Internally she was overwhelmed, but physically she still felt well.

“I usually have a little bit of pink in my hair,” Randall explained to shopkeeper Sue Chang.

Chang, soft-spoken and patient, told Randall that a good way to start would be to pick any wig and try it on, just to get a feel for the process. Randall moved slowly, taking long looks at the walls and windows, all stacked high with gazing mannequin heads.

“That was one of the first real moments where you do recognize what a big change it’s going to be,” she said.

Kikkan Randall, Olympian, breast cancer, cross country skiing

Gradually, the women found reasons to smile. Randall started with wigs that looked similar to her color and style, then broadened her scope for laughs. The Kikkan in jet-black hair. The Kikkan in long, blonde princess curls.

They dismissed some wigs as “mom hair.” Others, like the one called “Extra Large Rocker,” were deliberately outrageous. Randall made selfies with a semicircle of women at her back.

Kikkan Randall, Olympian, breast cancer, cross country skiing

July was when Randall began to confront who she would soon become. But the change was often subtle.

She bounced back from her first bout of chemo-induced sickness, healthy enough to join a morning workout with her former teammates from the Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center.

“If I get a week and a half feeling like this before I do it all over again, I’m going to make the most of that,” she said.

The roller-skiers sped through the hilly neighborhoods of South Anchorage’s Goldenview neighborhood in a single-file line. Two Team USA teammates led. This was Randall’s second family. Cancer or no cancer, it was difficult to see herself as anything other than a leader of this group.

For a while she had fun seeing how long she could hang on. She roller skied with the pack to the top of a steep street that overlooked the city. When a rock tripped her, she rebounded quickly with cuts on her leg and elbow.

Kikkan Randall, Olympian, breast cancer, cross country skiing
Kikkan Randall, Olympian, breast cancer, cross country skiing

She lasted about 45 minutes into the hour-long workout before calling it quits. Not her old self, but hardly incapacitated.

When it was over, Randall unclicked her chin strap and lifted her helmet from her tingling scalp. What she saw inside the helmet quashed one small hope.

“I think there was a small part of me that was holding out, thinking maybe I’ll be one of those people that doesn’t lose their hair,” she said.

On the way to her hair stylist, Randall paused at a stop sign, waiting at an intersection for a non-existent traffic light to change. She wondered if this is what people meant by “chemo brain.”

Kikkan Randall, Olympian, breast cancer, cross country skiing
Kikkan Randall, Olympian, breast cancer, cross country skiing

Ramona Larson, who had cut Randall’s hair for 10 years, said shaving a head is a simple cut, but emotionally it’s the hardest one she’s sometimes called on to give.

“That’s why people come in here, to feel beautiful, and all of a sudden you’re taking all that away,” Larson said.

It took just minutes for all of Randall’s hair to fall to the floor. Larson swept her client’s trademark pink streak into a tidy pile near the base of her chair.

Upcoming: Kikkan Randall tackles cancer treatment and tough choices with help from friends and fans

Kikkan Randall, Olympian, breast cancer, cross country skiing

Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at mlester@adn.com.