Since she began running in middle school, Gabriele “Gabe” Grunewald checked off numerous impressive accomplishments, including winning a track and field state title in the 800 meters in high school, becoming an NCAA All-American, placing fourth in the 2012 USA Olympic Trials, and nabbing a USA Championship title in the indoor 3,000 meters in 2014.
During many of these years, the 31-year-old was also battling cancer. Not just one diagnosis, but four in eight years, including a rare salivary gland cancer called adenoid cystic carcinoma. After each treatment and surgery, Grunewald returned to running as soon as she could. She now raises money for rare-cancer research and encourages other survivors to be active through her Brave Like Gabe Foundation.
SELF spoke with Grunewald to learn all the ways cancer has—and hasn't—changed her relationship with running. The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
SELF: How did you get into running in the first place?
Grunewald: I tried a bunch of different sports growing up. In middle school, I got into running socially with my friends. After trying cross-country and doing mile runs, I was hooked. It was a cool way for me to connect with friends, and I love spending time outside. I also love putting in the work and seeing the improvements, the delayed gratification from running and training and seeing how I can get stronger race by race.
SELF: You were still in college when you were first diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma (ACC) in April 2009. What was your initial reaction when the doctor told you?
Grunewald: I was shocked. The only symptom was this tiny little bump under my ear that didn't go away over the course of a few months. My coaches wanted me to get it looked at. I was in the best shape of my life, 22, getting ready to finish college and start the next phase of my life. I felt completely healthy, I was running races. It came out of nowhere.
SELF: The next day you ran a personal best in the 1,500 meters. Did you have any fears about how the ACC would impact your running?
Grunewald: I had never heard of this cancer before—one of the first things I did was Google it. It was very scary. But what I came away realizing was that it was going to be a short-term inconvenience with running. I would have surgery and radiation that would interrupt my life, but it seemed I'd get back to running. The scary thing is that ACC often comes back later. I just tried to focus on one day at a time, and from there, one year at a time. I had to end that season [and have surgery to remove the tumor], but I knew I'd come back. It was inconvenient but not life-threatening, though it had the potential to be life-threatening. So I had a lot of things to think about.
SELF: After surgery and radiation, you got a waiver from the NCAA to run a sixth season. How did you feel then?
Grunewald: There was no evidence of the disease after treatment, although I knew it was not a cure. But I was good for now. I felt, 'No reason I can't go run and live my life.’
SELF: And that year, 2010, was one of your best seasons. But then doctors discovered papillary thyroid cancer in October. What was that emotional roller coaster like?
Grunewald: They found this while doing a follow-up scan from the previous cancer. I wasn't expecting to have anything come up. I had just had a really awesome year of running and just signed with Brooks. I expected to have a solid few years of life without any interruptions. It was hard for me—it seemed cruel to have another surgery so soon in my neck. I didn't think I would be a two-time cancer survivor at 24. It felt a little early to have another setback.
SELF: Did you use running to help you during this time?
Grunewald: Running couldn’t help [because I had to take a break for surgery], but I recovered from surgery quickly and tried to put it behind me as fast as possible to get back to my life. And between 2010 and 2016, I was living my life. I ran the international track circuit, was ranked high in the U.S. and and world, and got married. I was trying out for the 2016 Olympic Trials, and then a month later, doctors found a metastatic recurrence of the adenoid cystic carcinoma in my liver.