Facing breast cancer with grit and gratitude

October 10, 2018 Providence Health Team

(Photo: Andre Horton)

Kikkan Randall used physical activity and positive thinking to win Olympic gold and is using the same approach to get through breast cancer.

Randall posts daily videos to chart her experiences and share her story.

Every day, she finds something to be grateful for.

The day of Kikkan Randall’s first chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer, the Olympic gold medalist worked out at the gym, donned her rainbow-colored “happy shoes” and cycled to her appointment at the Providence Cancer Center in Alaska. It’s the perfect example of how the positive outlook and physical tenacity that made her America’s most decorated cross-country skier are shaping her fight against the disease.

“Being an athlete is at the core of who I am,” Randall says. “No matter what is going on in my life I’m always thinking, ‘What activity do I want to do, who do I want to do it with and what are my goals,’ and I’ve definitely carried that into my cancer treatment. I think what I’ve found the most similar between the two is the mindset.

“When I was going for my athletic gold I always had a plan in place, with a step-by-step process. I had my ultimate goal out there, but I also had things right in front of me that I could control and work on to reach that goal. I’ve found that helpful in my cancer journey, because I have this daunting task of all this treatment ahead of me and wondering if I will be able to get rid of cancer, and that can be overwhelming. But if I break it down by each chemo cycle, and then by each day, then I have something I can have control over.”

In fact, Randall says she keeps a calendar and marks it with an “X” for each day she makes it through treatment. It is similar, she says, to the log she keeps during her athletic training. Randall is also tracking her cancer journey by posting social media and daily vlogs on her website. She says that capturing the accumulative day-to-day experiences of life during treatment adds up to a realistic big picture of her cancer journey.

“If I didn’t write down in my training log what I was feeling or how I was doing, I could get a couple of weeks or months down the road and I’d have a vague feeling about how the time went but I wouldn’t appreciate the day to day. I’d probably remember the high points and forget the low points,” Randall says.“The daily vlog allows me to have a full account of what it’s really been like during this cancer journey. I take a moment every day to reflect — was it a good day, was it a bad day, what did I do, what did I appreciate? Tasking myself with doing that every day has been a good exercise in looking at it from a different perspective.”

The videos also help Randall share her journey and reflections with others. When she had a blood clot in her leg 10 years ago, she connected with people who had experienced the same thing, as well as people who learned how to diagnose blood clots because of her story.

Now that she has been diagnosed with breast cancer, she hopes to form those same connections and help other people who have been through it — cancer doesn’t discriminate, and even Olympic athletes aren’t immune to the challenges.

Day 83 – Finding inspiration from many sources:

Day 83 from Kikkan Randall on Vimeo.

One of the main messages of Randall’s videos is her reliance on exercise during cancer treatment. “I’ve found that it’s good I made this outward commitment to being active because on the good days it’s easy to get out and do something and it makes me feel my most normal, like I did before I had cancer,” she says.

“But I’m finding on the days I don’t feel so well, it’s good to go out and give exercise a try. If I lay on the couch and think about how crummy I feel, then I don’t have any good distractions. But if I go out and do something, at the very least I get the distraction of being outside and being with friends and family, as well as the mental boost of being active. Most of the time, it’s made me feel better.”

She recommends that people with cancer try to keep up with their normal amount of physical activity if it’s appropriate for where they are at in their treatment.

The other things she recommends — and it resonates throughout her vlogs — is the power of optimism.

“I have used this often in my athletic journey. There were times when things were going great and I was hitting my goals. But there were also a lot of times when I was sick or injured, or I was a long way from the performance I wanted to achieve. Instead of fixating my thoughts on the negative energy I would always look for the positive. Maybe my training didn’t go perfectly one day, but I went out and did it and it made me a little bit stronger. Or I wasn’t feeling it one day, but it was a beautiful day outside and I enjoyed it with my friends.”

“No matter how hard the situation is, you can always find the positive and that can get you through the tough periods. That has certainly been true in my cancer journey. It’s so daunting and I acknowledge those negative thoughts, because I think it’s important to do that. But I caught it early and I have an amazing family and support team around me, so I’m going to enjoy every moment I have with them to get through this day by day.”

She adds that she has already gotten some surprising feedback from her video posts. “There are people who are watching who aren’t cancer survivors themselves but have people in their lives with cancer,” Randall says. “They say this has been so helpful to know how to relate to the people they know who are going through cancer. It’s kind of a taboo subject; no one really talks about it. So being open about it has been a fun way to help everyone understand it a bit more.”

The vlogs have also helped her connect with medical experts as well as very active people like her who have cancer. “By putting myself out there I’ve been able to connect with a lot of people and get good advice and a lot of great encouragement and support,” Randall says. “I think it is human nature when you face something like this to just say you’ll take care of it on your own and you don’t want to burden anybody. But by not being afraid to share what you are going through it helps everybody understand and get through it better.”

In her spare time, Randall works on a project inspired by her happy shoes: brightly colored socks emblazoned with the words, “It’s going to be OK,” that are scheduled to come out in November, the same month she is slated for surgery. The socks are part of her mission to fill her life “with as much color and happiness as I can, and it helps keep the mood light.”

After surgery, she will likely start radiation before the end of 2018. She is looking at 30 treatments, five times a week, spread out over about six weeks. For now, she continues to make physical activity and positivity her top priorities.

“When I’m out skiing, biking or running, it’s amazing how I just forget about the cancer thing,” she says. “I’ve heard from other people that the more normal activities they can do, the better they will feel. The other really awesome distraction that keeps me from thinking about this cancer thing is having my family to play with. My little guy is 2 ½ years old and I’m always chasing him around, and my husband has been wonderfully supportive. For me, I’m so grateful to be out and be able to do those things and be a mom.”

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. To learn more about breakthrough cancer treatments at Providence, and so much more, visit finishcancer.org.

AK: Providence Cancer Center

Providence Alaska #FinishCancer:

CA: Providence St. Joseph Breast Health CenterLymphedema Treatment Program at the Disney Family Cancer Center

MT: Montana Cancer Center at Providence St. Patrick Hospital

OR: Providence Cancer Institute

This is what it means to FINISHCANCER:

WA: Providence Regional Cancer SystemSwedish Cancer InstituteKadlec Oncology ProgramPacific Medical CentersProvidence Regional Cancer Center

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Kikkan will be honored at the 4th Annual AKTIV Against Cancer Award luncheon. The luncheon will again be at the New York Athletic Club on Wednesday, October 31st, 2018, from 12pm – 1:30pm during the TCS New York City Marathon Week. For more details click here.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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