By age 23, Aaron Grunke knew what it took to survive cancer. And as co-founder of the Survivor Fitness Foundation, he knows what it takes to thrive again.
In 2004, Grunke was diagnosed with an aggressive form of testicular cancer most commonly found among men in their early 20s.
His illness meant having to withdraw from Auburn University just one semester short of his original graduation date.
Two years, three surgeries, seven rounds of chemotherapy, and a diploma later, he was finally declared cancer-free.
Before his diagnosis, Grunke was a standout high school basketball player who stayed active to keep in shape. When the treatments ended, he was left searching for the strength and endurance he had admittedly taken for granted.
“I didn’t truly know what cancer had taken away from me until I tried to exercise again on my own,” Grunke explained. “When you have cancer, all your energy goes into fighting cancer.”
When the dust settled, he was 30 pounds overweight and had lost significant muscle mass—a result of sitting in chemotherapy sessions for up six hours a day.
His traumatic experience fighting cancer also lingered in less tangible ways.
“Mentally, I was beyond excited to be done with treatment,” said Grunke. “But I was shell-shocked. I felt alone and isolated with significant anxiety and depression, and no one had given me a constructive way to get rid of it.”
Several years later, Grunke met a personal trainer who took him back to the very basics of physical fitness to finally get back in shape.
“I started doing it his way and saw serious results,” said Grunke. “I got back to my pre-cancer weight. I got my energy back. And I found the mental clarity that really gave me my life back.”
That mental clarity came with an important lesson: that after treatment, cancer survivors need support that can’t be found within hospital walls.
Grunke didn’t have a medical background. What he did have was a compelling experience to share with those experiencing similar obstacles to their physical and emotional wellness.
“I decided that I could tell my story and let other cancer survivors know how they’ll feel after treatment and what they can do about it,” Grunke said.
In 2013, he created the Survivor Fitness Foundation with his wife, Meg, who also serves as executive director.
The program operates with a mission to empower cancer survivors and a hope to help people heal, physically and mentally, through personal fitness training and nutritional advice.
For twelve weeks, participants meet one-on-one with a dedicated personal trainer in a private setting to build sustainable, long-term exercise habits.
“There’s no better place to leave your emotions and your fears than a gym,” Grunke explained. “It’s an opportunity to encounter your limitations and find the strength to overcome them.”
Regular consultations with a registered dietitian also help participants recalibrate their diets.
Today, more than 250 people have graduated from the Survivor Fitness program to help recover what was lost, both physically and emotionally.
“We’re here to meet survivors where they are and help guide them through the survivorship journey,” Grunke said. “Facing cancer is tough enough. We don’t want people to feel alone, isolated, and confused about how to feel better after treatment ends.”
Like finally receiving an all-clear diagnosis, he says, the results awaiting their efforts are life-altering.
“It’s like seeing them get their lives back,” said Grunke. “They can handle their daily activities again. They’re not scared of checkups because of how good they feel.”
Above all, Survivor Fitness gives participants the support they need to rediscover lost hope.
“You’ll find a version of yourself that you thought was gone forever,” he remarked. “You’ll have the confidence to become a new you.”
Learn more about supporting our mission or becoming a participant at survivorfitness.org.