Brave Like Gabe

Being brave, for me, means not giving up on the things that make me feel alive.1

Gabriele Grunewald passed away on a summer night in June 2019. My son and I were at Walmart. He asked me as we were standing in the check-out line waiting with his ever-present phone in hand, if I knew who Gabe Grunewald was. I said, “Yes, I’ve been following her story and her cancer battle for a couple of years now.”

He said, “She just passed away.”

I was hit with an overpowering sadness; how cruel cancer is to take someone with such vitality and life at such an early age.

I never actually met her. I heard her story; her struggles with a rare cancer called adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare salivary gland cancer in early 2017. This was shortly after I was diagnosed with both a rare blood cancer called polycythemia vera and breast cancer a couple of months apart. I started following her on social media and realized we had a few things in common.

Gabe Grunewald's story

We both were from small towns in Minnesota, we shared a passion for running, competing in track in high school and on a collegiate level (although she was an elite runner whereas I was not). We both also had a rare cancer, a second unrelated cancer, and had recently undergone chemotherapy.

That’s where the parallels ended. At 22, she was significantly younger than me when she was first diagnosed in 2009. She was an exceptional runner and a national track champion who continued to train and compete throughout her numerous treatments. She placed fourth in the Olympic Trials just missing competing in the Olympics in 2012. I was in awe that she had the tenacity to continue running and continued to place well despite active tumors, major surgeries, and undergoing treatments.2

At the time I first heard her story, I was feeling sorry for myself. The two cancer diagnoses and grueling treatment left me despondent and depressed. I kept asking, why me?” There was even a short spell when I wondered why should I bother fighting? I was just going to die from either the breast cancer metastasizing or some PV complication like a stroke or heart attack or progression into leukemia. I was really struggling to make sense of how despite living a healthy lifestyle I could have not one, but two types of cancer.

When I read about all she had accomplished at such a young age, despite having two cancers too, it moved me. I figured if she could still continue to compete despite everything, I could certainly get off my butt and stop throwing myself a “pity party.” So I did.  I changed my focus; instead of commiserating on what I could no longer do, I focused on what I could do instead.

Brave Like Gabe Foundation

In 2018, she started the Brave Like Gabe Foundation. She said, “I hope people see that you can still make something beautiful and powerful out of a bad situation.” She did just that.

The mission of her foundation was “supporting rare cancer research and empowering survivors through physical activity.” She shared her story, connected with patients, and made a significant difference in the rare cancer community.

She inspired me to move forward and challenge my cancers head-on. So I did, getting involved with many volunteer organizations and all of a sudden life had meaning again. I realized that despite my cancers I still had a lot of offer others as a writer, mentor, and advocate.  I like to think I followed in her footsteps and made something good come out of the bad.

She had a lot of motivational quotes but one of my favorites was... "The one superpower that I can claim is simply resilience: adapting through challenges in life, bouncing back from adversity."

Gabe, you were an amazing athlete and a true hero. You showed us a positive example of how to bear the unfair burden of cancer with grace, courage, and bravery. Thank you for motivating me and helping me survive the most trying time of my life. I only hope that I will come close to making the same impact that you made you made in your short life.

RIP Gabe

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