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May 8, 2018

Running For Her Life — And For The Lives of Other Patients, Too

By In the Loop

Gabriele “Gabe” Grunewald runs for her life — and for the lives of other rare cancer patients, too

At 22, college athlete and elite runner Gabriele Grunewald was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Today she continues to run, not only for her health but as a way to support other patients and raise funds for research.


Gabriele "Gabe" Grunewald was in a hotel lobby in Tempe, Arizona, when she got the call that would change her life. On the other end of the line, a doctor informed her that the tiny bump she'd discovered below her left ear was cancer. Adenoid cystic carcinoma, to be exact. There is no FDA-approved treatment for the rare salivary gland cancer, Gabriele would learn. And there is no cure.

But Gabriele, then a fifth-year senior at the University of Minnesota, didn't know any of that at the time. What she knew was running. So a day after the call, Gabriele went out and did what she was in Arizona to do: compete in a track meet with her Golden Gopher teammates. Her coach had suggested she skip the race. Instead, Gabriele ran a personal best in the 1,500 meters.

"At 22, I didn't fully grasp what it meant to have a rare cancer," she tells us. "I wanted to put it in my rearview and move on."

And for a while, she did. Gabriele had surgery and radiation, then returned to competition, finishing second at the NCAA championships in the 1,500-meter run the year after her diagnosis. But that fall, she received another diagnosis. This time, it was thyroid cancer. She had another surgery and another type of radiation treatment. And again, she kept running. She turned pro, signed a sponsorship deal with running gear company Brooks, and finished just one spot away from qualifying for the London Olympics. And she married her college sweetheart, Justin Grunewald, also a runner for the U of M.

In August 2016 — seven years after her initial diagnosis — Gabriele learned her cancer had returned. This time, it metastasized to her liver. She had another surgery, and doctors believed Gabriele was cancer-free. But in March 2017, follow-up tests revealed more tumors in her liver. That's when doctors recommended she head to Mayo Clinic, where she now has biweekly immunotherapy infusions, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The paper reports Gabriele also "has periodic appointments at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and endures scans every three months."

Through it all, Gabriele has continued to run, applying lessons learned on the track to her approach to treatment. "You have to take running one day at a time, and it's not easy every single day," she tells us. "Running has served me well in this."

Gabriele believes it could serve others well, too. She recently launched a foundation, Brave Like Gabe, in part to encourage cancer survivors to incorporate physical activity into their lives. But the most important goals of the foundation, Gabriele tells us, are raising awareness of rare diseases and funds to support the research that may lead to their cures.

"So many things are uncertain for me right now, but one thing I can do is work to make a difference," Gabriele tells us. "I have been inspired by so many people and organizations, and that made me want to try to inspire others. I'm trying to do as much as I can by sharing my life story. I'm trying to make some good come out of this diagnosis."

She's already inspired one famous fan: Fixer Upper star Chip Gaines, who Gabriele met by chance last fall. Gaines then decided not only to run, but to host a marathon — and donate the proceeds (some $250,000) to the Brave Like Gabe foundation. "After hearing Gabe's story, I realized two things," Gaines wrote after announcing his decision to run. "I didn't want to spend another second standing on the sidelines, and secondly, given what she's gone through, I didn't have any excuse not to give this a shot."

Gaines isn't the only one hosting a race this month. Gabriele's foundation will host the Brave Like Gabe 5K in St. Paul, Minnesota, on May 20. "Being brave, for me, means not giving up on the things that make me feel alive," Gabriele writes on the foundation's website. Running, of course, is one of those. She hopes 1,224 runners will join her on race day — one for each person likely to be diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma this year.

You can learn more about Gabriele in this short documentary. Then run on over to leave a comment below before using the handy social media tools atop this page to share this story.


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Tags: Mayo Clinic Cancer Center, Patient Stories, salivary gland cancer

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