Gabriele Grunewald (© Ben Blair)
Full-time professional runner, part-time cancer fighter.
Or is it full-time cancer fighter and part-time professional runner?
The truth is these days, I’m not really sure.
I have spent the past six and half years mostly focused on the running, fortunately, and not so much on the cancer. But things have changed for me since last August.
I don’t know how many of you were following along since this little event known as the Olympics was going on, but after failing to make US Olympic Team for Rio, I spent the rest of my summer dealing with a cancer recurrence — and plotting a way back into competitive mid-distance running.
In 2016, the rare cancer [adenoid cystic carcinoma, ACC] I was diagnosed with in my salivary gland in 2009 had returned, this time in my liver. My husband Justin, an internal medicine resident physician, gave me a hug on a Sunday morning in early August and noticed that something felt weird about my abdomen. I agreed. I had felt some tingling and fullness in that area over the last month or so, but nothing painful or too out of the ordinary. Long story short, a trip to the ER later that same day showed what we had both feared: there was a large tumour in my liver.
The next few days and weeks were filled with oncology appointments, a biopsy confirming the lesion was metastatic ACC, and a plan for surgery. I felt extremely lucky that the tumour was in my liver as I learned what an amazing and resilient organ it is. My surgical oncologist explained that after I underwent a right hepatectomy; the left half of my liver would grow into the space previously occupied by the right and essentially function as a normal liver after about two weeks. They expected to remove all the tumour during surgery and I prayed that would be the case.
I woke up disoriented from the anesthesia on the afternoon of August 26th to the good news that even though he had a tougher time than expected removing the tumour in one piece, my surgeon felt confident that they got it all out. What a huge relief!
I left the hospital six days later on September 1st with a gnarly 13-inch incision in its early phase of healing, feeling pretty rough but overall pleased with my recovery. I had lost about ten pounds and walked hunched over a bit from the forward lean I used to protect the initial pain of stretching the scar, but I was doing well. Well enough to attend my brother’s wedding that weekend and shimmy around awkwardly on the dance floor.
Going for long walks and riding my bike alongside Justin on his runs were my exercise of choice for the first few weeks after surgery. I enjoyed the perfect fall weather in Minneapolis and even though I was a little sad I wasn’t able to run in it, I was just happy to be alive and presumably cancer-free.
"I had to walk home from more than a couple of runs."
Fast forward to November and I was getting antsy about training for the upcoming track season. The abdominal muscles that were sliced through in August were still healing but getting closer to feeling normal. Some manual therapy and exercises had helped expedite the process, but I knew my body would heal in its own time — whether that took a few months or over a year remained to be seen. Since the surgery, I had tried to start up running a handful of times up to about four miles at a time before having to stop due to incision-related pain.
Whenever I felt something sharp, I immediately stopped. I had to walk home from more than a couple of runs and did my best to listen to my body when something didn’t feel right. Right around Thanksgiving I completed my first (really slow) five-mile run and that turned out to the build-up that stuck. I did an eight-mile long run in December and the rest is history! Not really, but that’s when I felt about 85 per cent like myself again, and I knew that I’d be able to get back to doing what I love — racing — at some point in 2017.
That point has turned out to be this Friday, May 5th at the Payton Jordan Invitational where I will run the 1500 meters. With the support of Brooks, my coach, Dennis Barker, my amazing husband and my family and friends, I have returned to fitness and I am nervous/excited to find out what I am capable of on the track.
I had dreams of an epic comeback this season — my goal was to be both fitter than ever and cancer-free — but I didn’t get the fairytale ending I was hoping for, at least not yet. I found out in March in my first post-op scan that I still have cancer in my liver. We’re not sure if it is all new cancer or if some was left behind from the surgery. It doesn’t really matter. There are small tumours, too many for a surgery. I need treatment.
"When I’m in the middle of a workout I’m not thinking about surviving cancer, I’m just trying to survive the workout."
Since finding out about the new cancer, I have used running as therapy, much like I did through my three previous cancer experiences. The simple act of running is always a welcome diversion from the overwhelming uncertainty of my future. And you can’t really cry while you run, which is great! When I’m in the middle of a workout I’m not thinking about surviving cancer, I’m just trying to survive the workout.
I still dream about running fast this year and beyond, but the truth is I don’t really know what’s going to happen or how much elite running is realistically in front of me. All I can do right now is approach each day like I approach each rep of a workout: one at a time, doing my best to hang on until the next one.
Next week I will travel to New York City to meet with a head & neck oncology specialist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. There I will hopefully l figure out when I will start treatment and what I will start with first: chemotherapy, a clinical trial [immunotherapy], or some radiation technique. I am planning to race through the month of May regardless of whether or not I’ve started treatment, with the goal of running the qualifying standard for USA Championships in the 1500m.
So this is the scary part: I have a rare cancer for which there is no cure and limited effective treatment options available. But this is the hopeful part: cancer medicine is advancing every day and there are a couple of clinical trials for ACC starting soon. And the best part: I am alive, I am loved, and I still feel good enough to run.
Cancer can stop you from doing a lot of things, I’m well aware of that. But I’m more interested in what cancer can’t stop me from doing. Here’s to finding out.
Photography by Ben Blair