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

Part 3, August: Kikkan Randall adjusts to a wearying chemo regimen and increasing sickness with the support of friends.

Third of six parts

Nurse practitioner Erica Fossler wondered if it was an odd time to congratulate Kikkan Randall on her gold medal. “Bummer that I have to meet you this way,” she said as they entered an exam room at Katmai Oncology Group before Randall’s third chemotherapy treatment.

“I come into each infusion energetic, happy, positive,” Randall responded.

But days between treatments could be tough. Randall said her legs would get heavy a couple days after an infusion. Energy dropped off steeply and intestinal upset started.

Kikkan Randall, Olympian, breast cancer, cross country skiing

Her health took a pummeling in August, after her second infusion. An infection left her with a fever and sore throat. She lost her voice for more than a week.

Randall also had to travel for chemo because of a health insurance issue.

She and her husband, Jeff Ellis, relocated to British Columbia in the weeks after she finished her last competitive season. Ellis had a job waiting there. The couple bought a home.

But Randall was a new resident of Canada when she was diagnosed with cancer and medical coverage wasn’t in place. The United States Olympic Committee allowed her to stay on its health insurance program, she said. That was a huge relief for Randall.

“My first infusion — I just got the itemized bill — $67,000 for one day of infusions,” Randall said in July.

On the day before her third chemo infusion, Randall began another of many travel days back to Alaska from British Columbia. She wore her wig for the first time.

“I felt like I was playing dress-up,” she said.

Kikkan Randall, Olympian, breast cancer, cross country skiing

At Katmai Oncology, bags hung from machines and ran through tubes into a port near Randall’s left collarbone. Each treatment session takes several hours, and through three of them Randall wasn’t alone for a minute.

Friends and skiing teammates filtered through all morning, from two-time Olympian Holly Brooks to 20-year-old APU skier Hannah Halvorsen.

Each visitor’s attention was a testament to Randall’s impact on Team USA skiing. She had not only set a new standard for success, but helped others learn to financially sustain the lifestyle. Most importantly, she nurtured a sense of teamwork and mutual support among the women, they said.

Chris Grover, head coach since 2010, said Randall helped unite the team, drawing the women together to support one another.

“She didn’t see her teammates as a threat,” Grover said. “She was a great teammate and a great role model for the people around her, and she didn’t have to step on anybody in order for her to be successful.”

Sadie Bjornsen, an APU skier who finished last season ranked sixth internationally, counts herself lucky to have been under Randall’s wing. With Randall now retired, Bjornsen said she’s making it her mission to be the influence Randall once was to promising young athletes.

“I just want to share everything that I’ve learned with them too,” Bjornsen said.

Halvorsen, one of those APU up-and-comers, updated Randall about her training that day. Randall said the visitors made time fly with long face-to-face conversations that had been uncommon.

“It’s tough that it takes something like this,” she said.

Although rarely alone with her thoughts, a decision weighed heavy about the surgical response to her disease.

Early on, she thought a double mastectomy might provide some peace of mind, as removing her breasts completely could reduce the risk of cancer recurring. But the more she learned, the more complicated the question seemed.

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

Would removal make cancer harder to detect if it returned? How would the surgery affect the strength and mobility she needed for her active life?

A lumpectomy, taking only the cancer and tissue nearby, would have its own pluses and minuses. Recovery might be quicker, but she might need more frequent follow-up imaging. She was told that waiting for results can take an emotional toll.

“It’s hard, because there’s pros and cons to every single one. I’m glad I have time to really sort through this decision, because it’s a big decision,” she said. “I feel like I just need a big white board.”

Midway through her treatment, a staff member handed Randall a card that had been mailed to the clinic from New Hampshire. Randall read it as the infusion machinery thrummed over her head.

The sender, a breast cancer survivor, had been following Randall’s career since she competed in the Junior Olympics, 18 years ago.

“As dark as it may seem some days, please know that it is all worth it in the end,” Randall read aloud. The words stalled in her throat. “There are even some silver linings, like realizing what really matters in life and having an even greater appreciation for family and friends.”

Her eyes welled up. She said, “Those cards have been coming every day.”

“That’s because you’re loved,” said a Katmai staff member.

The staffer tended to the bags of medicine, pushed buttons and moved along.

Kikkan Randall, Olympian, breast cancer, cross country skiing

Much of the day exemplified what Randall later described as the advantages she’s had that most other breast cancer victims do not. The stream of friends and family. The cross-continental support. The health care options.

“Within seconds of announcing my diagnosis, I literally had tens of thousands of people telling me how strong I was and how I was going to get through this and giving me tips,” Randall said.

“And I think of a single mom, you know, that’s maybe living away from family or doesn’t have family, gets this diagnosis and now has to figure out how to maintain a job, maintain their family, and doesn’t have everyone telling them, every step of the way, ‘You’re going to do this. You’re going to beat this. You’re going to be strong,’ ” she said. “And I just realize, in a way I have it so easy.”

She said she hopes to one day talk about her experiences so that others with cancer feel less alone. Maybe she will learn something that helps. Maybe she can give hope.

After 3 1/2 hours, the chemo treatment was done.

Randall pulled off the ice packs she wore on her hands and feet, intended to help prevent nerve damage from the chemo. She pulled on pink socks that read, “I’m a girl. What’s your superpower?” One covered her tattoo of the Olympic rings. She laced her “happy shoes,” tie-dye colored running sneakers that she wears only on chemotherapy days.

Riding her bike home through the rain, she reveled in puddles along Tudor Road, soaking in the moments before the sickness returned again.

Kikkan Randall, Olympian, breast cancer, cross country skiing

Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at