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Choosing Bravery and Choosing Hope: What I Learned From Gabe Grunewald and Paul Kalanithi

As you may have seen in the news, Gabriele “Gabe” Grunewald, professional runner and cancer research advocate, recently died from complications from cancer.

She was only 32.

Throughout Gabe Grunewald’s decadelong battle with cancer, her message was one of choosing bravery and choosing hope — all this in spite of the wrench cancer threw in her life.

I first heard of Gabe through her running career. However, it was her cancer recurrence and subsequent advocacy that really brought her to my attention. I, along with her thousands of other social media followers, followed along for all the ups and downs. She and her husband Justin were remarkably candid and open and were willing to share their lives — both the good and the bad — in the hopes of bringing awareness to a terrible disease. I believe they both knew they were on borrowed time and wanted to make what time they had left, count.

image courtesy of www.womenshealth.com

It was at the recommendation of Gabe in an Instagram post that I finally read When Breath Becomes Air. The author, Paul Kalanithi, was a neurosurgical resident, husband, and new father when he passed away from Stage 4 lung cancer at 37. He wrote his memoir (finished by his wife) as a way of finding meaning in life (and encouraging others to) when facing almost certain death.

If you have not read When Breath Becomes Air, I cannot recommend it enough. It is beautifully written, poignant, heartbreaking, and important. I cannot promise you won’t ugly cry through most of it, but I do believe it will leave you changed.

Image from A Cup of Joe.

The way Paul and Gabe chose to live their lives was a wake up call of sorts for me.

I feel like I have been living my life on a bit of autopilot, something that is easy to do. As a result, I have been taking a step back and evaluating my own life and how I want to find meaning in it. I am taking stock of what I feel passionately about and figuring out how to pursue it. I am figuring what and who my priorities really are. Most importantly, I am trying to stay brave and hopeful no matter what life throws at me. I am by no means perfect and this is very much a work in progress.

However, I wanted to share a little about what I am learning along the way.

Life is really, really hard but it is also really, really beautiful.

To quote Westley in The Princess Bride, “life is pain Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

Life is hard. It is hard in small, day-to-day ways like turning your coffee pot on but forgetting the carafe. Or hearing your toddler say “uh oh” and finding poop all over the dog bed. Poop that does not belong to said dog. You will get to the end of a lot of days and feel exhausted or frustrated or both.

Life is also hard in big ways. There will be times of grief, loss, and heartbreak. There will be days and even seasons where you won’t know how to go on and times where you will look back and wonder how you did.

So yes, life is going to be tough but even in the pain, there is beauty and purpose. What impressed me most about both Gabe and Paul was their ability to take dreams derailed by cancer, and channel their passions elsewhere. Gabe had to give up running (at least at the level she was used to) but used her tireless energy to raise funding and awareness for cancer research, particularly for rare cancers. Paul had to give up performing surgeries but went back to his other love, literature, and wrote a beautiful book.

Both showed what it looks like to choose living even in the shadow of death.

We are all dying, so you better be living.

Here’s the thing, none of us are getting out of here alive.

We may live a long time or short time, but that does not change the fact that we are all dying. Paul emphasized the point that while it is relatively unusual to die from cancer in your thirties, dying in and of itself is not. It is the fate that we all face.

Paul believed that we live in a death-avoidant culture, and I agree. This does not mean you should be all-consumed by your own mortality but rather remind yourself periodically that you are up against a ticking clock. Take stock of your life and make sure you are embracing the time you have because no tomorrow is promised.

Which brings me to…

Whatever you are, be a good one.

If you ask most people what their priorities in life are, I think they would say it is sharing love and experiences with those they care most about. I also think most of believe we make this a priority, but I think a lot of us come up short in this regard. For many of us, we sacrifice ourselves to show our love for family, rather than giving up less important things that would allow us to give our best selves.

We trade stuff for experience, acquisition for substance.

I think it is very telling that the biggest advice Paul’s oncologist gave him upon his diagnosis was to figure out his priorities. When push came to shove, both Paul and Gabe focused on what really mattered in life. They realized they did not have time to waste. I think this is something we can all take to heart.

Pursue your passions: in your career, your hobbies, or your volunteer work. Life is absolutely too short to spend any other way than by doing what makes you feel alive. As Gabe was under comfort care at the end of her life, her husband, Justin posted a letter he had written her years before. The gist was that people are not going to remember you for what you did. They will remember you for how you lived.

Gabe and Paul lived with bravery and they lived with hope.

So consider this a kick in the pants. Stop putting your life on hold and start living it.

Paul’s wife Lucy writes in the epilogue to his book, “Even while terminally ill, Paul was fully alive; despite physical collapse, he remained vigorous, open, full of hope not for an unlikely cure but for days that were full of purpose and meaning.” Gabriele Grunewald referenced this quote in one of her posts. I know she took it to heart. May we all do the same.

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