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Photo by: Jenaragon94 [CC BY 2.0 (]

When long-distance runner Gabriele Grunewald crossed life’s finish line the evening of June 11, 2019, she was surrounded by family, friends and thousands of heartfelt messages from those who’d followed her running career and epic battle against cancer online. Her husband Justin, a fellow runner and physician, had posted to his social media last Sunday that “Gabe” had been moved home from the hospital with comfort care, and asked followers to share one last message with his wife before she “heads to heaven.”  The 32-year-old Olympic hopeful had been battling adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare type of salivary gland cancer, since 2009.

Salivary gland cancer is a malignant tumor of either major or minor salivary glands. “There are several types of salivary gland cancers,” said Dr. Trad Wadsworth, a head and neck surgeon at Moffitt Cancer Center. “Adenoid cystic carcinoma is one type and relatively rare, with approximately 1,000 to 1,200 new cases per year in the United States.”

Grunewald underwent surgery and radiation to treat her cancer, but even during therapy she continued to train. She placed fourth in the 1500-meter, one spot from qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics, and was the 2014 U.S. indoor champion in the 3000-meter.

Last week, Grunewald was hospitalized due to septic shock. Her husband posted on Instagram that she was moved to comfort care due to her worsening condition. He offered a last piece of advice for her fans - be #BraveLikeGabe. The Brave Like Gabe Foundation was created by Grunewald to support rare cancer research and serve as a mantra for cancer survivors.

Symptoms of salivary gland cancer can include a painless lump or bump in the oral cavity, throat, nasal cavity, face or neck. Occasionally, there are nerve symptoms like numbness or paralysis in the mouth or face. “Any of these symptoms lasting more than a week or two should prompt evaluation by a physician,” said Wadsworth.

Following her initial diagnosis ten years ago, Gabe’s adenoid cystic carcinoma returned in 2016 and 2017. Wadsworth says the disease can grow and spread very slowly and that cure rates are better reported after many years, instead of the typical five-year timeframe. He says the higher the stage the cancer is at diagnosis, the more likely it is to return.