Under the microscope: A closer look at Dr. Gail Grabowsky


Dr. Gail Grabowsky overcame cancer this year and returned to Chaminade to teach this Fall 2013 semester.

Dr. Gail Grabowsky walks into her classroom with her head held high and a smile on her face. A walking ball of energy, she is an enthusiastic environmentalist, a published author and also a cancer survivor who continuously carries a sunny disposition. Grabowsky has mentioned her battle with cancer to a few of her classes, but does so humbly, in a more of a matter-of-fact manner rather than pitying.

According to the American Cancer Society, the risk of developing colorectal cancer is a 1 in 20 chance. In July 2011, although she did not know right away, Graboswsky discovered that she had developed stage three colorectal cancer after a bout of discomfort and abnormal fatigue.

“My doctor has always said that the tumor was probably about 10 years old but just growing and growing,” Grabowsky said. “I was getting uncomfortable but you make up excuses. I was just like ‘Well maybe I’m just getting older. Maybe I’m not eating right.”

Soon the cancer impacted her physical energy and dampened her passion for work. The Service Learning program at Chaminade was always a favorite of Grabowsky, but during that time she became less and less earnest to begin new projects. Along with her energy for her career, Grabowsky’s finesse in sports began to take a downward turn.  As an avid Roughwater swimmer who had won in 2010, Grabowsky struggled to finish it in May 2011. She became extremely exhausted and was rescued much to her and the lifeguard’s, who witnessed her win the year before, surprise.

In August 2011 Grabowsky began to receive chemotherapy and radiation to treat the cancer. She was under 5-fluoroucil, a drug that has been used since 1967 in order to treat colon cancer. The chemo eventually boomeranged by making her feel worse instead of allowing her to get better, but she eventually finished her radiation treatment in October 2011.

“It was such a crazy drug,” Grabowsky said. “That drug made me so sick. I ended up on Labor Day going in the hospital. I stayed in the hospital for 44 days straight. We did not want to not take it because chemo can save your life, so at some point they did stop it.”

Grabowsky eventually found herself too sick to work and in the fall semester of 2011 until the spring semester of 2012 she took a leave of absence due to the cancer. In the midst of such a tough time in her life, according to Grabowsky, what got her through was “friends, love, of course medicine and nature.” In September 2012, the Waikiki Swim Club hosted a fundraiser swim meet at Kaimana Beach honoring Grabowsky with all proceeds going to her medical expenses.

“The love of friends while I was in there was so nice,” Grabowsky said. “People that had a class would have their little kids write down ‘Dr. Gail get better. The ocean misses you.’ That stuff was so cathartic.”

Even during the most painful aspects of the cancer, Grabowsky’s love for nature was still alive within her. While receiving chemo at Queens Hospital, she sought to keep active in any way she could. She found comfort in constant exercise and being outside with fresh air, good company and even something as simple as feeding birds.

“It was so healing,” Grabowsky said. “The sunshine, the wind, the trees, the critters, and just getting a little movement and to be able to feel my brain. That made a sense of love and stability that you grab onto these things in tough times. We all have something that we hang onto.”

In Fall 2012, Grabowsky returned to Chaminade, but this time she had to carry an external bag with her that contained medicine. All the while he continued to possess the zeal that was more than contagious. According to Grabowsky, she was glad to return to her students, which she felt gave her life purpose while continuing to push herself “to do something that helps the world to be a bit better place.” Her laughter, vigor and love for life through her journey with cancer inspired not only her students, but also her coworkers at Chaminade as well.

“She’s a strong advocate, she really pushes for what she believes in, a tireless worker,” said Darren Iwamoto, a psychology professor at Chaminade. “Definitely knows about perseverance.”

“As a person she is really strong,” said Ani Atero, a senior at Chaminade. “She was one of the first ones that made me want to get to know my teachers more. She took the time to get to know all of the students in my classes. How I changed as a student was me realizing that teachers are people too. They’re not just these head figures in the front of the class. They’re people and they care. She was the first one that showed me like, ‘I’m here for you.”

Fast forward to Fall 2013, and now it has been two years since Grabowsky first discovered that she cancer. According to Grabowsky, she has “nothing but luck and gratitude feelings.” She continues to swim, canoe, and participate in her beloved water sports. Today, she shares her story openly without any hesitation or hint of sadness.

“My dad and I talked about it and we felt and decided that since so many people unfortunately will get cancer or know people with cancer during their lifetime,” Grabowsky said. “It would be good to share the experience to demystify it and hopefully show them that life doesn’t always end with cancer.”