I'm a Four-Time Cancer Survivor and a USA Track & Field Athlete
Gabriele Grunewald opens up about beating cancer four times and why she continued to run through it all.
I've been a runner for as long as I can remember. My passion started in elementary school when one of my friends grabbed me to go do a cross-country run. I had so much fun that I haven't really looked back since.
I won my first state title my senior year of high school in the 800 meter. From there on out, I knew I wanted to run in college. That said, I wasn't sure if I could cut it at a Division I level. But I decided to go to the University of Minnesota anyway, even though I knew I was going to be a walk-on and not a scholarship athlete. I just felt that I had to give Division I running a shot, so that's what I did.
I spent the next six years running as a Gopher-all throughout undergrad and grad school. I still look back on those years as some of the best times in my life, and it was incredible to be a part of so many firsts. We won the Big Ten Cross Country Championships for the first time ever-won twice in a row, actually-and set a bunch of school records together. It was such an amazing adventure.
I was sitting in a hotel lobby in Arizona a day before a track meet in 2009 when I first learned that I had cancer. The past few months, I'd noticed a lump in my throat and finally decided to get it checked out after it wouldn't go away. When the doctors couldn't figure out what it was, they decided to do a fine needle biopsy and called me with the results. They told me I had an adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare form of cancer on one of my salivary glands-and that they wanted to get me into surgery to remove a tumor on my gland and start radiation immediately. (Related: Five Cancers That Start Young)
After hearing the news, I knew my season was going to end. I wasn't sure if I'd ever be able to run again. So I decided to compete in the race the following day-holding on to what I thought was my last shot. While no words can explain my emotions in those moments, the fact that I ended up setting a personal record gave me a lot of hope.
Fast-forward to 2010. After recovering from my surgery and starting training again, the U of M let me run for one final season. That season was a cancer survivor's fairy tale: I ran faster than I ever thought I could and set the school record. I wanted to be an All-American throughout my career, and not only did I do that but I almost won nationals, coming in a close second. That whole year opened up the possibility of professional running, which had not been on my radar before. (Related: The Best Running Tips of All Time)
Before I knew it, I started working with a professional coach and joined Team USA Minnesota and signed with Brooks Sports. That summer, I ran my first professional races. But all that excitement was short-lived. In the fall, a little over four months after my surgery, I went to my first visual follow-up scan after my surgery. It showed that my cancer had traveled to my thyroid. I ended up having to get surgery again, but once again was back on the track as soon as I recovered.
For the next six years, I was living the dream as a professional runner. I was fourth at the Olympic trials in 2012, which was kind of a bummer but a great performance for me. In 2013, I continued to set several more personal records and in 2014 I won the USATF Indoor Championships in the 3,000 meter and competed in my first world championships. In 2015, I continued to get faster and set several more personal records. By the time 2016 rolled around, I had my eyes on Rio. (Related: The Most Inspiring Moments from the 2016 Olympics in Rio)
Unfortunately, in the beginning of that year, I got a stress fracture that was the worse injury in my professional career, making 2016 a tumultuous season. I made it to the Olympic trial finals for the 1,500 meter, but didn't qualify and decided to end my season. It was right around that time that I found out that the cancer had metastasized to my liver.
So in August of last year, I had a hepatectomy where they removed the part of my liver that was affected. At that point, I was cancer-free again and hoped it would stay that way. But of course, that didn't happen. In March of this year, I found out that the cancer came back and that I had little tumors all over my liver for which I'd need to start chemotherapy-something I'd never done before.
Throughout this whole process, I've spent a long time trying to figure out how to keep running in my life both physically and hypothetically. After my latest diagnosis, I knew that making a comeback was going to be hard, but I also knew that throwing my shoes in the closet wasn't going to make me feel any better. My goal was to make it to the USA Track & Field Championships. And even though I've just started chemo for the first time, I'll be at the starting line for the seventh year in a row, which is a huge success in and of itself.
That said, this weekend will be my last race. I really want to take some time to focus on my health and hopefully become cancer-free for life. For me, these Championships are a celebration of what my body has been able to accomplish over the years and of the important role running has played in my life as a whole. (Related: 12 Amazing Finish Line Moments)
In fact, running has been the one constant throughout my cancer journey. Most mornings, I look forward to getting out the door for a run. And even when I'm not looking forward to it (which totally happens) I always feel better after it. Even though the doctors tell me I have cancer, I can't see it. And most of the time, I can't even feel it. It's always been difficult to find the line when it comes to pushing myself physically, but I've always tried to listen to my body and not overdo it. It's just something I take day by day. Sometimes I feel pretty normal running, but some days an easy run feels extremely hard. Basically, I've been holding on to racing as long as I can, but I am equally excited to continue running just for fun.
There isn't a time when I feel more strong, healthy, and alive than when I run. And that's what's helped me stay positive and continue to set goals regardless of all the fears I have in my life. For anyone in my shoes, whether you're fighting cancer or another illness or even just going through a tough time in your life, hold on to the things you're passionate about. For me, it's running. For you, it might be something else. But really cherishing those passions is what makes us feel alive-and that's always worth fighting for.