Grunewald was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma (ACC) — an extremely rare cancer usually found in the salivary glands of the head and neck — in 2009, but still pursued her career in middle distance running.
Her cancer reappeared three more times over the next 10 years, during which she narrowly missed out on qualifying for the 1500 meters at the 2012 Olympics and also ran in trials for the same event in 2016.
Grunewald gained thousands of fans worldwide during her cancer battle, with the hashtag #Bravelikegabe being shared widely across social media over the past week.
“I know I will never be able to fill this gaping hole in my heart or fill the shoes you have left behind,” her husband Justin posted on Instagram.
“Your family loves you dearly as do your friends.”
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Bravery and love
Tributes pored in from the running community after it emerged that Grunewald had been moved to end-of-life care.
“To everyone else from all ends of the earth, Gabriele heard your messages and was so deeply moved,” continued her husband’s Instagram post.
“She wants you to stay brave and keep all the hope in the world. Thanks for helping keep her brave in her time of need.”
American distance runner Kara Goucher wrote: “I love you so much @gg_runs! Thank you for showing me what bravery looks like.”
Marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe tweeted that “the bravery, heart and smile of @gg_runs will always shine brightly and inspire so many.
“Thinking of you and of @JustinGrunewald and all those whose lives were enriched by your courage and love.”
Grunewald’s initial diagnosis came after she discovered a small lump under her ear. ACC is an extremely rare form of cancer, of which there are about 1,200 new cases discovered in the US each year, according to oncologist Dr. Alan Ho of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
She was then diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2010 and underwent radioactive treatment.
In 2014, Grunewald was crowned US 3,000 meter champion at the indoor championships in New Mexico, clocking a time of 9:23.15.
It wasn’t until 2016, shortly after competing at Olympic trials, that cancer was discovered in Grunewald’s liver. After more surgery to remove a large tumor, follow-up scans revealed that a dozen smaller tumors had appeared in its place.
She formed the Brave Like Gaby Foundation to support research and treatments for rare cancer patients.
“I think being an athlete and being a runner has definitely effected how I approached surviving cancer,” Grunewald told CNN last year.
“It’s a sense of, I grind through my training and my runs, and sometimes it’s really hard. But there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, and sometimes it takes a while to get there.
“I take some of that attitude into surviving my cancer, and there are days that require so much endurance and patience and persistence that you have as a runner.
“There’s some tough races that I’ve had to bounce back from, and tough workouts, and that’s the same thing with my treatments … I still feel like there’s a way for me to get through it.”