Gabe Faced Cancer The Same Way She Faced Races--With A Smile

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Dear Gabe,

As I lay in bed last night, struggling to come to grips with how heartlessly unfair it is that you are no longer physically with us, the one image I could not shake was your smile.

In truth, your smile has haunted me the last several days, ever since Justin first shared with all of us that your condition had worsened and the inevitability that, after 10 years, you were going to run out of time in your fight against cancer.

I remember the first time I saw your smile. It was in New York on September 26, 2010. You had just finished 13th in 4:31.05 at the Fifth Avenue Mile. It was your second race as a professional, just a week after you debuted with a fourth-place finish at Grandma’s Minnesota Duluth Mile.

David Monti of New York Road Runners introduced us outside of drug testing. You extended your right hand and flashed those pearly whites. We agreed to connect for an interview back at the hotel later in the afternoon. We slunk into a pair of oversized chairs in the lobby and you began to take me through everything you had experienced the year before.

You told me about how, in the fall of 2008, you had noticed a small lump below your ear that sometimes hurt your jaw when you woke up in the morning, and that the following spring a specialist finally performed a needle aspiration to try and get to the bottom of it.

In April 2009, just before you were set to compete in Arizona, you were diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare and persistent form of salivary gland cancer. You joked about the irony in how you braced yourself for the worst when your mom, Laura, had a tumor removed from her ovary in mid-March that turned out benign only for yours to be malignant.

Again, that smile.

After a five-hour surgery to remove the parotid gland – another joke about leaving your parents waiting an extra three hours while you recovered from the anesthesia – you slipped in a detail and made it so easy for me to overlook that day. 

“Unfortunately, they weren’t able to remove all of the cancer,” you said, explaining ACC’s tendency to spread along the facial nerve and your doctor’s reluctance to remove the nerve. You quipped about imagining what it would be like to not be able to move the left side of your face, and it hadn’t mattered because the radiation treatment you underwent killed the remaining cancer. 

Even as a 22-year-old you had this innate ability to disarm the gravity of a situation with humility, humor, confidence in your fortitude… and that smile. You left me, and everyone else with the confidence that no matter what, you had this.

In 2010, a routine check-up revealed that you had papillary thyroid cancer. You finished runner-up in the 1500m at NCAAs, had a thyroidectomy, and embarked on a professional running career. 

In 2012, you almost made the London Olympic Team, finishing two seconds behind Jenny Simpson for the third and final qualifying spot in the 1500m at the Trials. You didn’t shed any tears in the mixed zone in Eugene that night. You did smile a lot, though.

Two years later, you won the 3K at USA Indoors. Seeing you throw both arms up in triumph and smile from ear to ear as you broke the finish line tape was the highlight of the meet for all of us in Albuquerque who grew to admire your perseverance. It was a performance that also had us convinced that your health problems were at a safe distance in your rear view. 

But the adenoid cystic carcinoma had us all fooled and came back with a metastatic vengeance in 2016. The tumor was as big as a volleyball and enveloped two-thirds of your liver. The surgery to remove it left you with a foot-long scar across your torso, as if you needed a cruel reminder of the severity of your challenge ahead.

But you bore the scar like a badge of courage and embraced a new vocal role as an inspiration to cancer patients around the country and world, continuing to mix your wit, sense of humor and fearlessness to selflessly become a beacon for others while staring down your own mortality. 

You started the Brave Like Gabe Foundation to raise awareness for rare cancer research in the hope that sometime in the future, no one will have to endure what you have.

"It's important to not feel alone in these hard situations," you said in a 2017 Flotrack interview. "It's cool to have people open their mind to the fact that they may be going through cancer, but they can't give up on their life and their dreams."

And you never gave up either, even when the ACC reared its ugly head a fourth time in 2017 and no rounds of chemotherapy or immunotherapy could slow its charge.

You remained optimistic. 

You smiled in the face of adversity. 

And you kept fighting. 

In the final days, when your vitals indicated that few grains of sand remained in your hourglass, you defiantly screamed at your opponent, “Not today!”

Even in your gravest hours, you had us all convinced that victory would be yours.

In truth, all of us that got to know you and were touched by your unyielding positivity were the true winners. 

I have never encountered a more panglossian or braver person in my life. I am not sure that I ever will. 

I will miss you. I will miss your smile.


God speed,

Joe

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