The first time Meg Grunke encountered the harsh reality of cancer face to face was also the moment she met the love of her life.
Fresh out of college and adjusting to her new life in Nashville, Meg attended a social event where a mutual friend introduced her to Aaron, who is now her husband and a loving father to their twins, James and Anna.
“When you think of spouses that have faced cancer together, you often assume they were together from diagnosis to remission,” said Meg. “I didn’t know Aaron when he was going through treatment. I met him during the aftermath, if you will, before he really started getting back control of his mental and physical health.”
As their relationship grew, Meg learned about Aaron’s life-altering cancer journey that started just a few years before they entered each other’s lives.
For the future Mrs. Grunke, listening carefully was essential to bonding over an experience that she didn’t share with Aaron in person.
“When we were dating and he was explaining his journey to me, I had him repeat everything over and over because I wanted to know everything that happened in detail,” Meg explained.
Just four years earlier, at the age of 21, Aaron had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of testicular cancer that required three surgeries and seven rounds of aggressive chemotherapy.
“He was the closest person to me who had gone through cancer, and knowing what that experience was like—the ups and downs and back and forth between treatment and monitoring—meant genuinely getting to know the man I love,” she added.
By the time they had met, Aaron had already spent three years fighting for his life—the kind of physical, emotional, and spiritual battle that comes at a cost for survivors and those closest to them.
Shortly after they married in 2010, Aaron began the second part of his cancer journey—one to reclaim his physical wellness, restore his mental well-being, and reclaim what he had lost to the disease and its treatment.
“What I had the privilege of witnessing was the evolution and transition between where he was struggling with life after treatment and getting back the control he had lost,” said Meg. “Seeing that transition in him and watching him rediscover this piece of the puzzle that was missing for so long was really powerful.”
Fitness was just one of the interests that Meg and Aaron had in common. So, when Aaron proposed Survivor Fitness as part of a business school project, she quickly saw its potential to help others recovering from cancer.
“Aaron’s the ‘wow’ guy, but I’m the ‘how’ person,” Meg remarked jokingly. “One day, he came home and told me he had filed the paperwork to start Survivor Fitness. That’s when I realized that we were actually going to do this together.”
Today, Survivor Fitness operates across Tennessee to connect cancer survivors with customized, one-on-one fitness training and nutritional counseling to regain strength, stamina, and independence.
As its executive director, Meg Grunke plays a major role in shaping the board of directors at Survivor Fitness by recruiting leaders who can help the nonprofit grow in size and increase its reach.
“We’ve been very blessed by the people who have entered our lives and have teamed up with Survivor Fitness,” said Meg. “Cancer is something that touches everybody in some form or fashion. Unfortunately, that means you don’t have to look too far to find someone who has fought cancer themselves or who has a loved one who has faced it.”
Reflective of her own leadership style, the foundation of her recruitment strategy is elegantly simple and straightforward.
“Board members need a passion for changing people’s lives,” she explained. “And they need to be able to share in a bigger vision to help as many survivors as possible. Together, we’re filling a need that isn’t unique to Tennessee. It’s a need all across the country, anywhere you go.”
While that growth happens, Meg looks to the survivors in her life, both at home and through Survivor Fitness, for inspiration to continue leading with confidence.
“Every time I get an email, or a text, or a phone call from a participant who wants to share their progress is a special moment for me,” said Meg. “For some, that means just getting to play with their children again, or opening up a jar of peanut butter on their own, or being able to be left at home without worry of falling and injury.”
“Each story is a reminder of how something so seemingly simple as moving your body—and having someone walk beside you—can make such a difference.”
Meg Grunke lives in Knoxville, Tennessee with her husband Aaron and their children James and Anna. She is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and serves as Executive Director of Survivor Fitness Foundation.