It’s one of the facts of being an athlete: You can never be sure which particular challenge will test you in a given season.
One year, when you’re completely healthy, say, the sport challenges you to train at the highest level. Your test is to work hard.
In another season, nagged by this injury or that, the test is to work smart, to walk the line between fitness and injury.
At still other times, when the body fails, the challenge is to endure a lost a season, the test is one of character rather than strength.
Life itself randomizes its challenges too. Just ask Gabriele Anderson.
In early March, the University of Minnesota fifth-year senior was the runner-up in the mile at the Big Ten Indoor Championships and was eying her final outdoor season in maroon and gold. By mid-March, however, she was caring for her mother who was about to have a tumor removed from her ovary and bracing for bad news about the nature of her mother's growth.
Then, when her mother’s tumor was found to be benign and Anderson thought she might be able to return to the familiar challenge of being a student and an athlete again, the real test came. Anderson , herself, was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, an uncommon and persistent cancer that arises in the secretory glands. The challenge was a test of endurance, in the most literal sense, and the test was all hers.
So now, instead of preparing for this weekend’s Big Ten Outdoor Championships with her team or, gathering with her family to care for her mother, Anderson -- with her family and her team supporting her -- is taking measures to fight her disease and, she hopes, to return to the track again next year for her final Gopher season.
A Small Lump
The big challenges that test Anderson today began with something small she discovered last fall.
“I started noticing a small lump below my ear and near the top of my jaw, which sometimes hurt when I woke up in the morning after sleeping on it or when I applied some pressure to it,” Anderson recalled. “I’m not sure exactly when I first noticed it, but in October I talked to our trainers and began the process of figuring out what exactly what was going on."
Anderson saw a doctor about the lump in December, but it wasn’t until March that a specialist suggested using fine needle aspiration to sample the tumor. In early April she had the test. On April 10, while in Arizona for an early-season outdoor meet, Anderson got the diagnosis: cancer.
“My reaction, at first, was shock,” she confessed. “I knew during that week that there was about a 20% chance that my biopsy results would come back positive for cancer, so I wasn’t completely blindsided. 20% actually seemed like a pretty big chance to me during that week. I started to try to prepare myself for the upcoming weeks and the possibility of my season ending after my next race, which was probably the hardest thing for me to deal with."
In Arizona, Gopher distance coach Gary Wilson gave the Anderson the chance to opt out of the race, but she, remarkably, preferred to run.
“It’s one of those situations where you really don’t have anything to lose, or gain, really, so the pressure was eliminated from the race in that sense,” she explained. “The thought of having cancer popped into my mind a few times right before the race, but I was really happy to be racing. It was a beautiful night and I kind of knew that racing would be able to give me some peace of mind. Also, I had no idea if I’d ever race again this season or as a Gopher, so I really wanted to take advantage of the opportunity."
Anderson ran a PR 4:22.87 for 1500m.
The race, however, would indeed be the end of Anderson’s outdoor season. She had surgery to remove the tumor on April 16. The procedure removed Anderson’s parotid gland along with the tumor itself.
“The surgery went well, even though it is incredibly tedious to remove a tumor in that part of the neck,” she said. “Even though my tumor was pretty small, the surgery took nearly five hours because the facial nerve runs though the area. I also had a tough recovery from the anesthesia, so my poor parents were waiting to see me for 8+ hours."
A common side-effect of the procedure is for patients to lose some control over their facial muscles. According to Anderson, she retained nearly 100% of her facial movement shortly after surgery, and expects to regain the rest in time.
“There aren’t really too many long-term side effects from the surgery itself,” Anderson said. “Even though they removed my parotid gland, there are other salivary glands that can do the job – so there won’t be any effects there."
“Most people don’t realize that the parotid gland (since it’s pretty big) makes up the appearance of a person’s jaw, so my left jaw line/neck does look a little different,” she explained. “I just have a small indent below my ear, but most people probably wouldn’t even notice it. My surgeon did an awesome job in my opinion!"
Surgery, though, is only the start of Anderson’s treatment.
“Unfortunately, they weren’t able to remove all of the cancer as it has a tendency to spread along the facial nerve, and my surgeon didn’t want to remove the nerve.” she said. “If he would have, I wouldn’t be able to move the left side of my face."
Anderson will need to undergo radiation therapy in the coming weeks to kill the caner that remains.
Patches and the “Gabe Face"
The Gopher track season, or course, hasn’t stopped just because Anderson’s season has ended. By the same token, Anderson’s teammates aren’t exactly moving on without her, either.
At the Drake Relays last month, a meet where Anderson has been a member of three winning relays squads – including the Gophers’ 2007 Drake Relays record-setting 4 x 800 meter team – Minnesota competed with shoulder patches that read “Gabe,” Anderson’s nickname on the squad.
In addition, some of her teammates designed warm-up T-shirts that honored Anderson’s penchant for transforming the look on her face in the final stages of a race. The shirts sported THIS late-race photo of Anderson and asked: “Are you this tough?"
“When my mom and I first saw the pictures of the girls wearing the shirts, we were emotional because it was so thoughtful and it meant so much to still be a part of the team that weekend, albeit from a distance,” Anderson said. “It was just really special to know that they were thinking of me while I was missing racing and being with them so much."
Wilson, who has coached Anderson for five years, thinks her toughness will be a critical factor in her battle with cancer.
“She is a VERY, VERY though kid,” Wilson wrote. “She is extremely determined as a student and as a runner and if anyone can beat cancer it is her. I have seen her have some very poor races and the next time she runs she bounces back and will have the race of her life. I think that any setbacks that she might have will be quickly overcome because of her ‘tough mindedness.’ Simply put she is a FIGHTER!!!!!!!!!!!"
Wilson and the Gophers know something about battling cancer, too. Long-time Gopher equipment manager Jack Johnson fought the disease in 2006. Johnson’s attitude about the disease that ultimately took his life became a rallying point for the Gopher’s 2006 Big Ten Champion Outdoor team.
“What I learned with Jack is that being positive and having people around you that are positive REALLY helps as one fights the challenges that cancer brings,” Wilson said. “[Gabriele] has a very supportive family at home and a very supportive and positive team family here, so the positive energy that surrounds her will really help as she fights this disease."
The support Anderson has gotten from the team is no small thing, the former team captain says.
“They’ve been so great. I can’t even begin to describe the outpouring of support I’ve felt from my entire team and their families,” she said. “So many people have gone out of their way to make me feel loved and supported, through cards, letters, emails, gifts, and flowers – anything. These small gestures have gone a long way to helping me get through the scary part of this, and gear up for the treatment I’ll start in a few weeks. I am so appreciative of being a part of this group of warm, caring people."
Anderson recently attended the Gopher home track meet on Friday, May 8th and plans to be on hand this weekend when the Gopher seek the Big Ten “triple crown” in Columbus, Ohio. As a member of this year’s conference champion cross country and indoor track teams, she’d love to cheer her teammates to an outdoor crown.
The next big event in Anderson’s effort to rid her body of cancer will be radiation treatment, which she’ll begin shortly after the semester ends for the English/Political Science double major who has already begun graduate studies.
“Since the cancer did spread along my nerve,” she explained, “I will undergo radiation therapy starting in a few weeks. I haven’t met with the radiation oncologist, so I’m not sure what the details are just yet. From what they’ve told me, I’m expecting about six weeks of radiation, five times per week, with about six additional weeks of recovery until I’m feeling 100% again."
Adenoid cystic carcinoma is known for its persistence. While the disease has a nearly 90% survival rate in the first five years after diagnosis, according to a study cited by the Oral Cancer Foundation, the survival rate drops to 40% after 15 years.
“I’ll never know for sure if all of the cancer cells are gone post-radiation, but by carefully monitoring the area we’ll hopefully be able to deal with any recurrences before they get too serious,” Anderson explained. “Adenoid cystic carcinoma has a high-rate of late metastasis to other parts of the body, like the lungs and liver. I’ll never be able to say I’m “cured” because of that high-risk of the cancer eventually spreading to other areas, however, I’ll be able to live my life pretty normally and fully, despite getting checked often."
Anderson seems both realistic and optimistic about her future.
“It is hard to look 20-30 years down the line and know that I have a good chance of having to deal with this again,” she admitted. “In the first few days after my surgery, I was pretty upset as I looked to the future. Since then, I’ve been able to see things more rationally."
“Every single day is truly a gift – I know that is incredibly cliché, but it is true,” she continued. “I think I had somewhat of a grasp on that concept before all of this, but cancer has certainly brought a new perspective to my life. The truth is that God can take life at any point, and there is no way to know if I would even live long enough to see the cancer come back. I plan to go forward and live my life without reservation, and without constantly thinking about what I could have to face or miss in the future."
One thing Anderson wants in her future is her senior track and field season – the one she had to stop just two meets into this spring.
“I was planning on this season being my final season of competing as a Gopher,” she said. “At this point I’m hoping to apply for a medical hardship waiver to get a sixth-year and run my last outdoor season in 2010."
Anderson says people who know her won’t be surprised that she wants to race in maroon and gold one more time.
“Through all of this, I have realized just how important it is to do things that you love while you have the opportunity to do them,” she said. “I love racing and being a part of this team, and dealing with cancer doesn’t affect that."
And, after the unexpected challenges in her life this spring -- and those still to come this summer and beyond – you can bet Anderson will look forward to the simpler challenges of an outdoor track and field season – whatever those challenges turn out to be.
Photo credits: Top, courtesy of the University of Minnesota; middle, by Gene Niemi; bottom, by Sean Hartnett.