Change of Plans
Life plays tricks on us sometimes. Just when we think everything is in order, it can cave in on top of us. This is what happened to Anderson. During her final track season, a lump in her neck she noticed several months earlier became painful, causing her to schedule a doctor’s visit. A brief exam confirmed that it was a tumor and they’d need to take a small sample. After the appointment she boarded a plane to Tempe, Ariz. with her teammates to run at the Sun Angel Invitational. Life would continue as usual until she was told otherwise.
Then, the day before her race the call came from her doctor. She had adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare cancer of the salivary gland. Despite the fact that this type of tumor can often spread along nerve tracts making surgery challenging, her doctors ordered her in as soon as possible. They would perform the delicate operation to remove the tumor, a parotid gland, and several lymph nodes that same week.
She called Wilson to meet down by the pool in the hotel in Tempe. “She often doesn’t show her emotions, but she was really shaken,” says Wilson. Her teammates joined her and they broke the news.
Anderson’s boyfriend (now fiancé) Justin Grunewald was also there as a member of the Gopher men’s team. “She got the call and it was this scary, weird moment,” he recalls.
It was then that Anderson made a decision that would be particularly indicative of how she’d deal with adversity: She would still race. Before traveling back home to reality, she toed the line for the 1500m. She stood on the track knowing cancer was growing in her body and the future she once took for granted was now murky. Despite this, she charged around the oval, finishing in 4:22:87, a PR and the sixth fastest time in Gopher history.
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“I don’t think I could have done that,” says Grunewald. “I definitely struggled in my own race that day because cancer was on my mind.”
Upon coming back to earth in Minnesota, Anderson had her operation and began radiation therapy. That spring and summer she went through eight weeks of radiation treatments five times each week. Her hair fell out, she was fatigued all day every day, and the treatments burned her skin. She was even told she might need a feeding tube if she couldn’t produce enough saliva to take in adequate nutrition.
Despite this, Wilson contends, “she’s got a spirit that just will not quit; she’s one tough hombre.” It was a far cry from what she had in mind for her final collegiate season, but she rose to the challenge. Meanwhile, her teammates and competitors alike rallied around her. The Gophers affixed “Gabe” patches to their uniforms in a sign of solidarity. They made t-shirts with her picture that read, “Are you this tough?” She was still their captain and teammate regardless of cancer.
By the time August came, her doctors gave her the green light to begin running again. After filing for a medical hardship with the NCAA, she was granted another season of eligibility in track as she finished a master’s degree in public policy. The thing she was afraid of losing the most — running and competition — was suddenly restored. Starting from scratch, the fall and winter seasons were devoted to slowly building fitness and confidence. By Thanksgiving she was able to finish a 5K road race and in January she began racing on the indoor track again.
Then came the fireworks. Those incremental improvements she made her first few years of college, turned into leaps and bounds after cancer. Exactly one year after her diagnosis, she ran a 4:20:56 at the Sun Angel Invitational in Arizona. By the time Big Tens came around, she finished second in both the 1500m and the 800m, missing the title in the former by just .01 of a second.
“There’s no doubt I’m a different runner than I was before cancer and I’m not sure exactly why,” she says. “I saw it as a challenge I guess. I had this concrete goal to get through the whole experience of surgery and treatment and return to running to be the best runner I could be. All those things took on a different meaning when it got taken away from me. After cancer, I chose not to let anything hold me back.”
Rounding out a stunning season, she seized second in the 1500m at the NCAA Outdoor Championships, which was good enough to tie the best finish ever by a Gopher athlete at the meet. She also finished her collegiate career with a 4:13:45 PR, besting the school’s record.
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“People ask how she did all those things as a sixth year senior. Every time she lined up, she’d look at her competitors and think, ‘I’m going to kick your butt,’” says Wilson. “I knew I may never see anything like what she did again — that spirit of ‘I’m never going to give up.’”
Grunewald also knew this season was something special. “Words can’t describe what it was like watching her,” he said. “It was phenomenal. Every race she got faster, 4:17. 4:16, down to 4:13. It was inspirational.”