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'So surreal': Olympic gold medalist Kikkan Randall announces breast cancer diagnosis, returns to Anchorage for treatment

Anchorage Daily News, Alaska — Tegan Hanlon Anchorage Daily News, Alaska

July 12--Just months after winning an Olympic gold medal, Alaska cross-country skier Kikkan Randall found two pea-sized lumps in her breast. Medical tests confirmed she had cancer.

"It's been a roller coaster," Randall, 35, said Wednesday, soon after announcing her diagnosis on social media. She started chemotherapy this week in Anchorage, the city where she grew up.

"Just like getting any tough news, you go through all the stages of denial and disbelief and frustration, but I always come back to the same skills I've used in my athletic career," she said. "I need to focus on what I can control. I need to be positive and optimistic."

Randall spoke about her breast cancer diagnosis in her parents' East Anchorage home late Wednesday afternoon as her father prepared food in the kitchen.

In April, Randall moved to British Columbia with her husband and their 2-year-old son after she competed in her final Winter Olympics. She said she looked forward to redirecting the energy that she had poured into cross-country skiing into new projects. Her husband had a new job. They wanted to expand their family. But cancer will disrupt even the most well-laid plans.

"When you're an athlete, you feel invincible," she said. "You never think this is a position you'll be in."

Randall said doctors had caught her breast cancer in its early stages. They won't know for sure until they operate, she said, but believe it's stage 2. They told her the prognosis is good. But she will have to undergo six rounds of chemotherapy -- one infusion every three weeks. Then she will have surgery, though she's not sure what kind yet. It could be anything from a lumpectomy to a double mastectomy.

This year, she said, has been the most dramatic of her life.

"It's really been a mixture of emotions and it's so surreal for me because I just won a gold medal four months ago and I just was feeling on top of the world," she said. "Life is going to kind of forever change."

Making history

Even before the Olympic gold, Randall had set a new standard for success for American skiers. She's a three-time World Championships medalist and a 13-time World Cup race winner. She was the World Cup circuit's overall sprint skiing champion for three consecutive years.

Then she made history at this year's Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang when she won the women's team sprint race with Minnesota's Jessie Diggins. She and Diggins became the first American women to ever win Olympic medals in cross-country skiing, and they won gold.

Randall described it as a fairy-tale ending to her 20-year career. She's America's most decorated cross-country skier.

On TV and in photographs as she celebrated with Diggins in South Korea, her trademark pink highlights peeked out of a headband.

She wrote on social media Wednesday that pink "had taken on a new chapter" in her life now. She had long used the color as a way to stand out and attract attention to her sport. Over the years, it became a good luck charm.

"It's given me strength in the past," she said. "It's just so ironic that pink has been such a part of my life and now it takes on this whole new meaning."

While she has let her pink highlights fade over the past few weeks, she said, she planned to have her high school friends help her reintroduce the color soon, before she loses her hair. Then she'll take suggestions for pink-colored wigs.

'Uneasy feeling'

Randall found the lumps in her breast on Mother's Day in British Columbia.

"I had this great day with my husband and my son. We're in our new location, we went out and explored," she said.

"I was getting ready for bed that night and I just happened to brush past it and thought it was my rib bone at first, just kind of a hard spot. Then I realized it felt more like a pea in there, or a marble. I already had an uneasy feeling about it."

Randall said she has worked on many breast cancer awareness projects in Anchorage, so she knew to go see a doctor right away if something didn't feel right.

She had a mammogram, an ultrasound and a biopsy. While she was in Sweden for a wedding, she got the call: She had breast cancer.

It caught her by surprise, she said.

While breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women in the United States, the average age at diagnosis is 61, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only about 11 percent of new breast cancer cases are found in women younger than 45, the CDC says.

"It's crazy for me because I don't have a family history of it," Randall said. "You read through all the things they tell you to do to avoid breast cancer and it's like: Exercise, eat right, don't smoke. Check. Check. Check."

Randall has had low moments since the diagnosis, she said, but she's trying to push those aside and remain positive. She has received an outpouring of support from family, friends, athletes and the community. Her husband continues to tell her how lucky they are that the cancer was caught early. Her son smiles and laughs and she's careful to enjoy those moments, she said.

"It's the best motivation there is and the best reason to do whatever it takes to get through this," she said. "I'm really lucky to have those guys and I'm trying to take advantage of cherishing every moment."

Randall said she hopes to eventually return to her family's home in British Columbia between her rounds of chemotherapy in Anchorage. She said she promised herself she'd stay active, strong and determined during treatment. She has already sent an email to her oncologist asking if she can go through the hours-long infusions while on a treadmill or stationary bicycle.

"I haven't heard anything back yet but if they're open to it, I'd be willing to try it," she said with a smile.

"It's easy to tap into her strength," said her dad, who stood nearby.

On Monday, Randall rode her bicycle to the gym, to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage for her first chemotherapy treatment and then back home. She wore her rainbow-colored "happy shoes." She said she's already brainstorming projects to share her journey to recovery with others, in hopes it will help them.

She hopes to keep up with other projects, too, depending on how she feels during chemotherapy. That's the big unknown, she said. She doesn't know how sick she will get, but she's taken to referring to her future self after treatment as "Kikkan 2.0."

"I'll take this on like I have taken on anything else," she said. "I think Kikkan 2.0 could be pretty awesome."

ADN's Marc Lester contributed to this story.

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