Kikkan vs. cancer: Cancer tests a champion’s drive

Part 4, September: Exhausted but restless, Randall finds a growing new purpose.

Fourth of six parts

Kikkan Randall lay on a table at Providence Imaging Center waiting for a radiologist to enter the room. Her blue medical gown was a peculiar match for the over-the-top makeup on her face.

She had come to the clinic from a three-hour photo shoot, where her makeup artist used a heavy hand. The long fake eyelashes couldn’t hide her tired eyes.

Kikkan Randall, Olympian, breast cancer, cross country skiing

It was three days after her fourth chemotherapy infusion, and its effects were sapping her energy and clouding her mood. Randall had not slowed down enough to account for the fatigue.

Cancer only added to the directions she was being pulled in. She even took on a new role, encouraging cancer patients like her to stay physically active.

Randall had planned her week while she was feeling well, hoping to make the most of her time. But it was too much, she said later. She needed to remember that she could not be all Kikkans to all people — the winner, the warrior, the optimist and the friend.

“I know I’m not going to feel great, but it’s hard to wrap your mind around exactly what that feels like,” she said.

Kikkan Randall, Olympian, breast cancer, cross country skiing

She expected the procedure to be brief, like an injection. But the doctor would implant a device in her breast to mark her cancer before her upcoming lumpectomy. It took hours.

While she waited for the doctor, she tapped out text messages to postpone her next obligation of the day — not cancel it.

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Over the course of a six-day stay in Anchorage, Randall consulted with two surgeons, a radiologist and an oncologist. She sat for her four-hour chemo treatment. She gave multiple interviews and participated in multiple photo shoots.

She also worked out two days with her old teammates and showed up to cheer them on at an event. She appeared at a high school cross country race and a flu shot clinic. She visited with extended family and cared for her young son.

She had planned to join a conference call with the United States Olympic Committee, but hit her limit. She skipped it for a nap.

“It’s crazy,” said her mother, Deborah Randall. “She comes and you’d think it would be like ... rest, have your mom take care of you. No, it’s not like that at all. She roars into town like, ‘OK, I’ve got this, this, this and this to do.’”

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

But Randall went through her busy schedule in a chemo fog. She had to make notes before details vaporized. She woke feeling unrested. Coffee packed less of a punch.

“It’s hard because I don’t feel so sick that I’m completely incapacitated. But at the same time, I’m definitely not normal,” she said.

Declining requests was difficult. Randall had recently won an Olympic gold medal, and she also had chosen to be open about her cancer challenges and experiences. In the age of social media, she was keenly aware of her example to others.

As that busy week started, she felt a sense of responsibility.

“I’ve got to stick to what I’ve said now. I’ve got to set a good example here. People are watching,” she said.

Randall also faced the challenge of adjusting to a new normal after decades of full-throttle fitness.

At home in British Columbia, she trained with a friend who competes in triathlons. Two-and-a-half-hour bike rides here. One-hour-forty-five-minute runs there. Randall tracked her kilometers and calories burned.

“I can’t help but still wear my heart monitor,” she said.

She signed up to ski in the American Birkebeiner cross country ski race in Wisconsin next February. She planned to be in New York City in November and couldn’t help but consider if she would be over her final chemotherapy hurdle by then.

“The end of the second week, I could probably run a marathon. It would be kind of cool just to run it to see if I could do it,” she said. “But at the same time, I’m like, do I need to force myself to do that? What’s the why behind it?”

Kikkan Randall, Olympian, breast cancer, cross country skiing

Before chemotherapy, Dr. Jeanne Anderson seemed to sense Randall’s internal conversation.

“You have to make yourself listen to your body, and not let your competitive athletic brain override what you’re feeling,” Anderson said.

Deborah Randall said her daughter inspires her, but she was also concerned. The load was too heavy.

“It’s really hard. And she’s one of these people that doesn’t ever ask for help or anything. So I just try to keep up with her,” Deborah said.

That week, Randall described coincidences that had given her pause. In spring, Randall was informed she was chosen to receive an award from a group that promotes physical activity in the fight against cancer, called AKTIV Against Cancer. That news came weeks before she was diagnosed herself.

“Of all the things I got involved with, I got involved with them,” she said. “I had pink in my hair for 12 years. There’s just some really funny things. It’s almost like I was destined to do this.”

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

As summer turned toward fall, Randall returned to Anchorage once more and, again, didn’t sit idle for long.

On her first morning back, she stood on a stage on the Delaney Park Strip before a crowd of hundreds who rallied for breast cancer charities. The running and walking event, Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, was hosted by the American Cancer Society. Her Olympic gold medal glinted in the morning sun as she posed for pictures and spoke of her own cancer experiences.

Survivors talked about Randall’s example before the walking portion began.

Julie Stayden, an eight-year survivor from Anchorage, said Randall is proof that cancer knows no boundaries.

Kim Carlson said Randall’s fame might encourage women to seek screenings.

Jane Couser said Randall inspires other cancer survivors toward physical fitness.

Regina Wright said Randall gave her courage to not be embarrassed about her own bald head.

When the survivors gathered together for a picture, Lenita Walsh, 52, an 11-year survivor, stood next to Randall. Walsh had seen pictures of Randall getting treatment and felt connected. Walsh said she prays to send Randall strength.

“I don’t know her, personally. But since she’s a public person — a global person now — I feel a little bit of me, going through what I went through, is helping her spiritually,” Walsh said. “I’m still fighting for her.”


Marc Lester

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