What would you do if you were diagnosed with cancer at the peak of your athletic career? While most young athletes will never have to deal with anything as weighty as cancer, this was the reality facing University of Minnesota senior cross country and track star Gabriele Anderson.
STACK recently had a chance to talk with Gabriele about the challenge of beating two cancer diagnoses on her way to becoming a professional runner with a shot at making the U.S. 2012 Olympic Track team. If you’re facing a hurdle in your athletic career, read Gabriele’s story to learn about the power of a positive attitude.
Her possibilities were endless. Gabriele was a fit, happy 22-year-old senior at the University of Minnesota running track and cross country. By the time she reached her senior year, she had represented the Golden Gophers three times in the NCAA Cross Country Championships and had been named Second Team All-Big-Ten in cross country in both 2007 and 2008.
During the fall of her fifth year in cross country, she noticed a lump on her neck. “I had talked to some athletic trainers, and they had wanted me to get it looked at to make sure it wasn’t anything serious,” recalls Anderson. “I ended up doing a fine needle aspiration just a few weeks after my indoor track season ended.”
At the time, Gabriele was looking forward to ending her career in maroon and gold with a bang. She remembers being at Arizona State, preparing to run in the 1500m to open the outdoor season when she got a call from her doctor. “That’s when […] I actually was diagnosed with a rare salivary gland cancer called adenoid cystic carcinoma."
“I was obviously really shocked,” continues Anderson. “I definitely knew it was a possibility after talking with the doctors earlier in the week, but I never imagined that was actually the diagnosis I was going to get.”
After the initial shock came devastation for Gabriele and her team. Immediately, Gabriele began to think about the upcoming track season—her last as a Golden Gopher in her home state—slipping through her fingers. “I just kind of looked to the future, and I was really disappointed, because I knew that my track season was probably going to end soon. It was my last season, and I was looking forward to ending the season with all of my teammates."
In a way, Gabriele was able to go out with a bang that season. The day after her diagnosis, she ran the 1500m and finished second, setting a PR of 4:22.87 in the process (a feat she would go on to top). “I had a surgery the next week, and then I followed that up with radiation therapy,” recounts Anderson. “I did 12 weeks of radiation therapy."
Road to Recovery
After those 12 weeks, Gabriele’s oncologist wanted her to wait at least six more weeks before running every day again. That much time off can be debilitating to any athlete who hopes to make it to the professional level. Gabriele says, "It was uncomfortable for me to allow my body to fade from my peak fitness to really just being out of shape and knowing I was out of shape.” But taking care of her body had become Gabriele's number one priority. She put just as much time and energy into regaining her health as she would have running hill sprints or pushing herself at the end of a race.
Gabriele missed three to four months of training due to her cancer. “And then I started building up really slowly,” she explains. “At first, it was hard for me to run even twenty minutes. I just focused on getting out every day. Five or six days a week and I’d take a day off. Gradually, I moved up from twenty minutes each day to thirty to forty and then at some point in September, I started running seven or eight miles, six days a week.”
Gabriele was smart about training for her comeback. Instead of pushing herself to run like she did at Minnesota, she ran easy mileage until she began to regain her fitness. Only after she and her trainers felt good about her fitness did she challenge herself with harder workouts. “It was a slow process,” she admits. “I ran by myself a lot, because I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about running with my teammates.”
By avoiding the challenge of running with teammates, Gabriele was able to train at her own pace and recover the right way. Soon, she was back to an elite level of fitness.
Gabriele is thankful for the many supporters who motivated her to return to the track. “My coach was a big part of that,” she says, referring to University of Minnesota cross country coach Gary Wilson. Her family and teammates also provided invaluable support: “I don’t think I would’ve been able to get through that hard time in my life without such a supportive group of people. It made all the difference."
By the time she was fully recovered, Gabriele had set a school record in the 1500m and had set her sights on the 2012 London Olympic trials. “This is a two- to three-year journey for me to make it to the trials," she says. "The first step was finding out that I had another season of eligibility in 2009.” Looking back, Gabriele believes she wouldn’t be where she is today if it weren’t for the cancer and the ensuing hardships she had to endure: “Having taken this time off and going through a really difficult personal time for me is really what kind of led me to professional running. That’s the path that led me to where I am today."
Unfortunately, in the midst of her recovery, Gabriele suffered a setback with yet another cancer diagnosis. “I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer last October and had my thyroid removed,” she says. Although she has a treatment coming up in early December, Gabriele remains positive, assuring STACK that she’s healthy right now.
“Unfortunately, I’ve got a little more work to do before I can fully focus on training, but my health comes first,” Gabriele says. She admits that it has been difficult as a competitive, young athlete seeking to achieve her goal of qualifying for the Olympic roster. “But I think it’s helped me put a lot of things in perspective with my running and helped me to strive to reach my potential with the opportunities I’m given, because I know how easily they can get taken away.”
The Power of a Positive Attitude
How was Gabriele able to bounce back from two cancer diagnoses to set a school record and compete with the best athletes in the world for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Track team? “The power of a positive attitude is really amazing,” she says. “For me, having cancer twice has been a huge challenge, but instead of seeing it as this daunting thing I could never recover from, I saw it as an opportunity.”
Throughout her three-year ordeal, Gabriele has always tried to focus on the opportunities that arise from her challenges. Today, she continues to thrive off her challenges and work toward her goal of landing a spot on the 2012 U.S. Olympic Track roster, training as a member of Team USA Minnesota. She says, "I think thriving off of challenges is something anybody can do. It just takes looking at the challenge in a positive way, to really focus on the personal growth that can come from adversity.”
Lots of professional athletes are fine role models for young athletes. But after speaking with this cancer survivor and Olympic hopeful, we can’t think of a better source of inspiration for athletes trying to overcome obstacles than Gabriele Anderson.