Lessons Learned Surviving Breast Cancer with Kikkan Randall

On Real Pink, we often speak with breast cancer survivors and those living with metastatic breast cancer, and we hear stories about the fear, confusion and the anxiety that a breast cancer diagnosis can cause. But, I have also heard from many of the men and women listening to Real Pink, that they have been helped by hearing real-life stories from other survivors and sharing in their experience.

In this episode, Kikkan Randall, the United States’ first Olympic gold medalist in cross-country skiing, joins the podcast to share her personal journey with breast cancer.

About Kikkan

Kikkan Randall is an American, Olympic champion cross-country skier. She has won 17 U.S. National titles, taken home 17 U.S. Championships, made 16 podiums in the Stage World Cup, made five trips to the Winter Olympic Games and had the highest finish by an individual American woman at the World Championships, second in the Sprint in Liberec in 2009.

She was the first American female cross-country skier to take a top ten finish in World Cup competition, to win a World Cup race and to win a World Cup discipline title. She won the silver medal in the individual sprint at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships 2009 in Liberec, becoming the first American woman to win a medal in cross country skiing at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships, and in 2013 teamed up with Jessica Diggins to win the first ever American FIS Nordic World Ski Championships gold medal in the team sprint. She and Diggins won the United States’ first ever cross-country skiing gold medal at the Winter Olympics in women’s team sprint at Pyeongchang in 2018.

She was born in Salt Lake City, UT, and grew up in Alaska. Years later, she made her Olympic debut in her birthplace, at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002.

In April 2008 she was diagnosed with the genetic blood clotting disorder Factor V Leiden after being hospitalized twice due to blood clots in her left leg. In April 2018, Randall was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Kikkan currently resides in Alaska with her husband and three year old son.


Adam: [00:00] On Real Pink we often speak with breast cancer survivors and those living with metastatic breast cancer and we hear stories about fear, confusion and the anxiety that a breast cancer diagnosis can cause, but I have also heard from many men and women listening to Real Pink that they have been helped by hearing real-life stories from other survivors that are sharing their experience. So to share her personal story and her journey through breast cancer today with me on the show is Kikkan Randall. Keegan has competed in five Olympics and finished the last Olympics with the gold medal in the team sprint. She also leads a nonprofit called Fast and Female working to keep girls in sports. She works with the Olympic Committee, she does motivational speaking and she was the only mom on Team USA in the 2018 Olympics. Kikkan, welcome to the show. 

Kikkan: [00:49] Hey, well thanks for having me and wow, that’s a mouthful. You got it all in there. 

Adam: [00:54] But I didn’t that’s what’s so amazing like I think your resume’s way longer than that and so it’s so impressive. I am so excited just to hear your story and not just your story through breast cancer, but just seeing it through the eyes of an elite athlete that has just done amazing … I mean five Olympics, that’s just unbelievable. 

Kikkan: [01:14] Well, cross country skiing is a sport, kind of like a fine wine, you know, keep getting better with age so it gave me a nice long career to work up to that pinnacle of the gold medal. But then amazingly in a short time, I think the tides have turned a little bit and I had to use that experience to conquer a new challenge and that’s been overcoming breast cancer in this past year. 

Adam: [01:34] Well, let’s talk about that. So walk me through what some of your largest challenges have been overcoming breast cancer? 

Kikkan: [01:43] Well, I think as an athlete I was used to really having control over my body. I certainly put myself through a lot of discomfort, but I always had the option to stop and with so much of the cancer there’s a lot out of your control and it’s kind of upsetting to realize that you’re not just this invincible, superhuman that can outwork anything thrown your way. At the same time, I was able to really see breast cancer as that kind of big challenge, just like when I was going after a big result in skiing and just take this big scary, daunting thing and break it down into smaller chunks until I had something I could control, something to work on in front of me every single day. And I think just really coming at it with the right mindset, staying positive and being able to break it down into those manageable chunks has really helped me get through this one piece at a time. 

Adam: [02:36] So it sounds like basically you took and compared training for the Olympics where you’ve got this sort of gigantic goal and you break it into small, manageable bite-sized chunks and you essentially applied that methodology to getting through your breast cancer diagnosis by breaking it into just let’s get through today. So can you give me a little bit of an example? What does that look like?

Kikkan: [03:00] Sure, well I mean when I was first thinking about trying to win an Olympic medal in cross country skiing, no American woman had ever done it before. So there was no roadmap to say it was even possible and at times it was scary to say out loud, “I want to go for a medal”, when it had never been done before. But I was also kind of excited to see how far I could push myself to go through that and so when I got my cancer diagnosis, it felt similar to me in that cancer’s just this very big, daunting, scary thing and there was a lot of questions and a lot of what if’s and there’s statistics, but basically I just said, okay, you know, I need to get through this and okay the treatment is going to consist of these different components. 

[03:45] There’ll be chemo, there’ll be surgery, there’ll be radiation and within those there’ll be different segments, and so I just took that big thing and I showed myself how I could work through it one step at a time to get through to the place where we could get rid of the cancer and I could get back to doing all the things I wanted to do. And I think being able to focus on that one step right in front of me, whether it was getting through a chemo round or a day of radiation or all those things, it helped me literally put marks on the calendar and get through it one day at a time. And now here we are a year later, and as far as we know, I’m cancer free and I’ve been able to get back to all the activities that I wanted to do, and I think if I had only thought about the big challenge of there being cancer in my body, that would have been intimidating. But the fact that I could see something to work through every day kept me going. 

Adam: [04:37] That’s fantastic. So tell me a little bit about in terms of preparing yourself for that. How did you go about educating yourself so that you could sort of break it down into those chunks and really understand how to think about it?

Kikkan: [04:49] Well, I knew that I was not the typical cancer patient. I was coming literally three months off of winning a gold medal, being incredibly fit and healthy. I wanted to stay active through my treatment that was going to be important for my body to be able to process the treatment that I was going through plus just the mental challenge of being knocked down and not being in control. So I really worked to find doctors and providers that could understand who I was coming in. How I might process the treatment and what activities I wanted to get back to at the end of my treatment? And I felt like that was really important because there’s a lot of different decisions that you make within your treatment. You decide what surgical route to go through and whether or not to do chemotherapy, whether or not to do radiation. 

[05:36] And so I think having a team of doctors that could understand who I was and my unique needs was really important. So I took, I would say a little bit of time up front to select people that felt like the right fit for my team, and I also was really proactive about talking about what I wanted to do, asking a lot of questions. Kind of being a little bit of my own advocate asking those questions and not just taking the first thing they were telling me as the law, but making it more of a collaborative process I think was really helpful. 

Adam: [06:05] And I think that’s really, really smart, especially coming from where you’re coming from. I mean your tip, top physical health.

Kikkan: [06:11] No, it was really helpful and thankfully my doctors were very patient with me. I asked actually if I could ride a stationary bike or walk on a treadmill while I was getting my chemotherapy infusions and my oncologist was actually open to the idea. She said, “Well, I mean I don’t see a reason why not.” Turned out the nurses who would be observing me to the treatment were a little bit nervous about it because if I got a little flush they wouldn’t be able to tell if that was because I was exercising or because I was having a reaction to the infusion. So we ended up settling on to the fact that I would ride my bike to my treatment and ride my bike home at the end and just get up occasionally and walk around while I was getting an infusion. 

Adam: [06:51] Wow, you rode your bike to and from the chemo treatments. I just want to make sure I heard you say that correctly. 

Kikkan: [06:58] I did, I did and actually on my way to the treatment I would also stop at the gym and I would do a pretty aggressive strength training session because I knew going into the infusion I would feel pretty good and coming out of it, the first one especially, I didn’t know how I would feel coming out of it, but at the end I still felt decent. So I rode home and then I noticed as the rounds progressed that because of the steroids that you take to counteract some of the side effects, I really actually felt pretty good for the first day or two after the treatment, so I knew I’m going to get my exercise in then because I know I feel good and then if I don’t feel good for a few days after that, well then I at least can have that kind of feeling of satisfaction that I got some of the work in and now maybe I take it easy for a few days until I kind of feel like I’m feeling good again and then I’ll get back at it. 

Adam: [07:45] Wow, that’s so amazing. I love that. It’s such a unique approach. So shifting our conversation just a moment, let’s talk about some support resources for someone who is supporting someone else that’s been recently diagnosed. So what do you recommend, what are some resources? What are some thoughts around the support network? 

Kikkan: [08:05] Well, the support network is one of the most, I think important things about going through treatment. I was really well supported as an athlete, always had a great team of people around me. Not only taking care of the really technical things but also kind of being the cheerleaders to help you get through those invariable low points or there to celebrate the high points with you. The teammates you’re working with day to day, the coaches, plus my family was incredibly important so all that was crucial in my athletic career, but then now experiencing the role that my support team played going through cancer, it just blows it through the roof and it’s been incredible. And I have to say that I’ve tried to approach this with a pretty positive mindset, but that’s not to say I haven’t had my points when I doubt and I get scared and I feel crummy and I start to succumb to some of those negative thoughts. 

[08:53] And it was the people around me that helped kind of pick me up and remind me that there were things to stay positive about. The prognosis was good. If today felt crummy, well tomorrow might feel better. Friends who called me and I think initially they were a little cautious because they didn’t know what I was going to be able to do, but they took the risk and they called me and said, “Hey, you want to go for a hike? Do you want to go for a mountain bike ride?” And sometimes that was just a little push I needed to get out the door and maybe if it wasn’t the pace I was used to, the fact that we were out there, we’re outside and there’s great distraction of conversation and I always ended up feeling better when I went out and did that so I’m so glad that my friends, they weren’t afraid of what I was going through and they were willing to help lead me through it no matter what. 

[09:36] My husband and my parents were just amazing at catching me at those low points. My little boy Breck who’s three years old now was the best motivation, distraction there is because no matter how awful I was feeling, I could focus my energy on him and watch him play. And so it was wonderful to have, have him as kind of part of my support team. He was young enough, he didn’t really know what was going on. 

Adam: [10:02] Sure.

Kikkan: [10:03] But he thought it was funny to rub my head when I lost my hair and when we were going through an airport and he saw a mannequin with no hair and he’s like, “Oh that’s Mom.” So all that was was incredible and then I was very open about my treatment and what I was going through on social media, but then literally within seconds of putting my diagnosis out there, I was getting messages and support from all over the world. 

Adam: [10:28] Wow. 

Kikkan: [10:29] So I feel like being able to take some of that energy and thought process outside of my own head and interact with others was really helpful especially interacting with people who were supporting another loved one going through it. You know how badly they want to help and so trying to figure out what the best ways are for that and I would say just the more positive, the better. 

Adam: [10:49] Okay.

Kikkan: [10:50] That is the one thing you can control. 

Adam: [10:52] Right, so it occurs to me as a career athlete you mentioned that you had a support team as a part of that and then you had a support team as a part of overcoming this illness as well. So as I’m thinking about that I realize that not all people are really great at accepting support. It sounds like you’ve got to be amazing at it because you’ve had these teams around you, so what advice would you have to someone that maybe needs a support team and is reluctant to allow other people to come into their lives and give them that support? 

Kikkan: [11:27] Yeah, I mean, well, I’ve been used to having to support my career. I also would say I’m not the best at always accepting help. I definitely have like an attitude like, “Oh, I can handle this. I’m fine. I can do this.” What I found most helpful was when people kept things relatively normal and they were there to just offer an activity to do or when people brought food over, you know those things were super helpful. I also got a lot of incredible care packages in the mail, which had frivolous fun things in them that just kind of reminded me about the good side of life and the connection that we share, and as a patient just try to recognize that this is the one time in your life when you don’t have to be tough. You don’t have to do everything yourself and just I feel like confronting cancer just was that reminder that I do have incredible people in my life. I shouldn’t take the moments with them for granted and so every opportunity just spending time together, I felt like was incredibly important. 

Adam: [12:30] Wow. Keegan, this has been a fantastic interview. I really appreciate your insight. Really your enthusiasm, your approach to conquering incredibly difficult tasks, it’s really, really inspiring. Do you have any, any final thoughts that you want to share with our audience before we wrap up? 

Kikkan: [12:48] Well, another little thing that helped me through treatment and ended up being kind of a cool thing to do with my support team was I had these rainbow colored running shoes that I started wearing into my appointments and my husband came up with the idea to come out with some happy socks that you could pull on and it could be that reminder to stay hopeful. And so we kept saying to each other, it’s going to be okay, going to be okay so we put the “it’s going to be okay” slogan on the socks. We ended up partnering with Darn Tough out of Vermont, which makes incredibly wonderful socks. 

Adam: [13:19] I love Darnn Tough socks. 

Kikkan: [13:21] Yeah, great socks and we came out with this, it’s going to be okay sock that’s very brightly colored. It’s got the inspiration on there, but we started offering those through my website as a fundraiser for “Active against Cancer”, and we ended up doing some … L.L Bean is one of my sponsors, and they donated some headbands. And so we came out with a few of these products and we’ve been selling them and hearing the stories of how people are utilizing these, whether it’s conquering a medical challenge like cancer or whether it’s getting ready for a big race or even a tough job interview. 

Adam: [13:52] Yeah.

Kikkan: [13:52] Sometimes we all just need that little reminder, it’s going to be okay so that’s been a really fun project for my husband and I to do together. So if anyone out there needs a little bit of that inspiration [inaudible 00:14:03].com and the happy socks are right there.

Adam: [14:06] I may have to check those out. Well, Keegan, this was so amazing. Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. Love to have you back on the show again sometime.


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