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An Olympian and Cancer Survivor’s Advice for Overcoming Challenges

Olympian Kikkan Randall

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It was a day of highs and lows: Olympic Gold Medalist Kikkan Randall had spent a perfect afternoon in 2018 walking through the wildflowers with her husband and son near their new home in British Columbia. Then, just a few hours later, she found a lump in her breast that turned out to be cancer. 

Since then Randall, an Anchorage, Alaska native who took the first-ever gold for the U.S. women’s cross-country ski team during the 2018 Winter Olympics, has successfully battled breast cancer and poured her post-professional sports retirement energy into her son, husband, racing new distances and inspiring others as a professional speaker. 

Through that she’s mulling the lessons she learned from her cancer fight — and shared them with us during her appearance on the Humans Outside Podcast (Season 1, Episode 5)

What does her life spent in the outdoors and a fight against cancer teach about overcoming challenges? Here’s Kikkan Randall’s best advice as given in the podcast. 

Listen to Kikkan Randall on the Humans Outside Podcast. 

1. Know what you can control — and what you can’t. 

Cancer was just about the last thing Randall expected coming off the high of the Olympics, she said. 

“It was total shock and just disbelief, because I felt amazing,” she said. “You know, I was coming off some of the best shape of my life. I was so excited to have concluded one amazing chapter of my ski career and I was looking forward to doing new things in a new place. And the last thing on my mind was that something like cancer would be lurking.”

As reality set in, however, she realized that there was really only thing she could control: her attitude. So instead of focusing on the betrayal, she focused on that.

“Well, you just realize there are things you can control and things you can’t, and spending too much time on things you can’t control doesn’t get you anywhere,” she said. “One of the big things that you can control is your attitude and your outlook.” 

She focused her energy, she said, on remembering the war she knew her body was capable of making.

“I can choose to feel betrayed by my body, to be frustrated, to really center on that,” she said. “Or I can say ‘You know what, I’ve done some really incredible things. I have this strong body. I’m going to be able to get through this. I’m gonna use the motivation to get back to all the things I love to do to get me through whatever I need to put up with throughout the treatment.’”

“I realized that it was real and I was just gonna have to tackle this as my newest challenge. It was weird to wrap my mind around the fact that I was going to have to make myself feel worse to get better, because I just didn’t feel sick at all. But that was the reality and I just kind of took it on.

2. Bring your outlook back to optimism 

Learning to focus on what she could control while leaving behind what she couldn’t meant focusing on optimism, Randall said. 

“Well, you just realize there are things you can control and things you can’t, and spending too much time on things you can’t control doesn’t get you anywhere. One of the big things that you can control is your attitude and your outlook,” she said. 

To do that, she said, she learned to pause, take stock of where she was mentally and shift her thinking when needed. 

“I think being able to just really think about the conversation going on in my mind and constantly reframe it back to the things that I could control, and always be kind of optimistic and hopeful. I think it’s been the biggest asset and getting through this challenge,” she said.

3. Use time outside moving for inspiration and health

Heading into cancer treatment Randall knew how important staying physically active was to her mentally — and how much it had helped in past injury recovery. With the OK from her medical team, she built exercise and movement into her care plan. 

“And so as I was looking down some pretty aggressive treatment for this cancer diagnosis, I knew that physical activity was only going to be helpful for me, it’s so core to who I am. It makes me feel somewhat normal going through this totally foreign process. I just wanted to stay true to something, again, that I could control,” she said. 

To help her know when to push through a tough day and when her body really was done, she set a 10 minute rule, she said.

“I would try to get out and do something for 10 minutes a day. And if after 10 minutes, I was just feeling totally wiped, I would respect that and go home,” she said. “But most often, that 10 minutes was just that little bit of coaxing I needed to get out and then it turned into 20 minutes and it would progress from there.”

Randall now believes staying physically active was the reason she was able to keep her attitude focused on optimism. 

“Staying active, however small, each day helped me stay more mentally positive. It literally helped my body process the treatment. I would get a lot of water retention the day after chemo infusion. If I got out and did something easy like a roller ski or a bike ride, I would have less fluid retention than if I didn’t do anything,” she said. “I knew that physical activity was going to be important going into it. But now that I’ve been through it, I can tell you, it is so important. And I wish that medical professionals were talking more about what you can do, and not just leaving that off the table.”

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