"I really want to leave the sport on my terms, not on cancer's terms."
This interview is part of Health’s #RealLifeStrong series, where we are celebrating women who represent strength, resilience, and grace.
In April of 2009, the night before the first race of her last track season in college, Gabriele “Gabe” Grunewald was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma (ACC), a rare cancer of the salivary glands. She underwent surgery and radiation, but in October of 2010, a routine checkup revealed cancer in her thyroid—which required more surgery, and radioactive iodine treatment.
Over the next years, Grunewald continued setting personal records on the track. She won her first national title in 2014, and ran competitively at her first World Championships and two Olympic trials. And then in 2016, the cancer came back. After major surgery to remove a four-pound tumor fom her liver, Grunewald again returned to competitive running in February of 2017, only to learn in March that more tumors were growing on her liver.
Still, Grunewald runs. Here, the 31-year-old—who has her sights set on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo—opens up about what it takes to compete in the face of an uncertain future.
How has cancer changed your approach to running and racing?
The racing hasn’t happened as much as I wanted it to, but it’s about still having goals. I still want to get back to the track, and I still believe I can run fast, but now I have this cancer treatment on my plate. The most important thing for me is to keep running. Any time I get to race at this point, with where I’m at with my health, is such a huge gift.
What has it been like to compete during treatment, especially when you were going through chemo at the 2017 Track and Field Championships?
The timing was tough last year. Finding out that I still had cancer in my liver, and that I needed further treatment was a huge blow, because I had convinced myself that maybe I would be cancer-free. I think that’s what you have to do as a cancer patient. You hope for the best in between those intervals of scans.
I definitely felt rough on chemo, but I wanted to see what I could do on it. I also wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to raise some awareness for the rare cancer experience. My running has allowed me a way to do that. It’s not easy by any means to talk about this and run through all these treatments, but I think it’s the right thing to do.
Is that what inspired you to advocate with Cycle for Survival?
It has been so heartening to know there’s an event and a cancer center–Memorial Sloan Kettering–that is putting rare cancers at the forefront, and raising dedicated research funding for those clinical trials. Memorial Sloan Kettering has done a clinical trial through Cycle for Survival funding specifically for my cancer.
My doctors [at home] in Minnesota mostly told me there’s not a lot of research on my cancer or treatment. So seeing Cycle for Survival, and getting treated at Memorial Sloan Kettering opened my eyes to the fact that people do care about rare cancers.
Cycle for Survival is all about empowering people through physical activity, whether they’re survivors, patients, caretakers, the researchers themselves, or just people who want to help. I think it’s so powerful to get together and break a sweat over a common goal.
Has sharing your story helped you connect with others who have rare cancers?
I communicate with different people on a daily basis. It’s so important for me to try to be a good example of doing your best in the face of a really terrible situation. One of the hardest things about having cancer, and specifically having a rare cancer, is just feeling alone in that hard place in your life. I know there are other people out there in my situation, and usually we can make each other feel less alone going through it.
Who has been been your biggest source of support?
My husband is very supportive, and has been there for me from the very beginning of this cancer journey when it started nine years ago. We love running together. Even though he’s a doctor and very busy, he’s tried to start training and racing more to make up for me because I can’t do it.
I am very lucky to have a really solid group of friends who have basically been my best friends since college. I have a best friend who lives out in Seattle and a best friend in San Francisco, and even though they don’t live here, we are in constant contact. They have been supporting me and encouraging me to continue to use my voice when it’s overwhelming. My family’s been there too–my little sister’s one of my best friends as well.
Have there been moments when it seemed like it was time to stop running?
I don’t think stopping altogether has ever crossed my mind. Cancer has taken a lot of things away from me, but it hasn’t taken running away at this point, and I feel really fortunate for that. I’m not going to stop. I love it, and I feel really grateful that I can still do it.
Racing and trying to be a professional elite athlete is a little bit more complex. That’s been tough, but I’m reluctant to give up on that. My dream is to go back to one more Olympic Trials in 2020. I really want to leave the sport on my terms, not on cancer’s terms.
To me, having those big goals in my life, even though I’m going through this crazy cancer journey, helps me to get through my day-to-day life. I just need my cancer to cooperate, and then I really do still feel like I can run fast.
[Editor's note: You can watch a short documentary about Grunewald's 2017 season below.]
What led you to create your Brave Like Gabe Foundation?
I want to try to inspire other cancer survivors and cancer patients to stay physically active, and have physical activity as an important part of their survivorship. Brave Like Gabe is a way for me to continue to encourage people, particularly through running.
Also if I can make any [financial] contribution to rare cancer research, that is so important. I’m happy to share my story, but I want to make a difference in the rare cancer community. I have no idea if all of this research will be able to help me in my lifetime, but I really want the future to be different for rare cancer patients.
How do you think physical activity can help someone who isn’t as competitive or as talented as you are?
It’s really easy to compare yourself to other people, and sometimes that’s what is motivating for a professional runner. But I think for all of us, the greatest source of competition, even for me at this stage where I’m at with my health, is just being the best version of myself. There’s a version of Gabe who is a pre-cancer runner, and a version of Gabe who is a two-time cancer survivor. But now it’s what can stage 4 cancer Gabe do? What can four-time cancer survivor Gabe do? I think it’s 100% worth it to try to be your best—and that’s different from everyone else.