A Darien woman's brave cancer decision
Updated 12:39 pm, Friday, February 22, 2013
DARIEN -- Since learning she has terminal brain cancer, Shannon Dunleavy has been forced to make some difficult decisions.
First, the 28-year-old decided to stop treatment and live out her life at her parents' Darien home. Then she decided to forgo a traditional funeral.
"A social worker asked about a funeral and I said absolutely not," Shannon said while lying in her bed Thursday afternoon. "I think it was no surprise. It's just we're not very religious. I've only been to two funerals and I've never liked them."
Instead, Shannon and her family will throw a "Celebration of Life" gathering Saturday afternoon at the Piedmont Club in Darien. They've invited about 150 friends and relatives to share memories of her life -- while she's still alive to celebrate with them.
Shannon said she wondered how she could make the event honest, without "forcing people to dance to rap music." So there will be some of her favorite music, such as the Dave Matthews Band, speeches from her two sisters and stories from her college roommates.
She asked everyone to wear green, her favorite color. And she hopes there will be a lot of laughter.
Just three years ago, planning this party would have seemed out of the question for the outgoing young woman.
Shannon grew up in Darien, went to the University of Connecticut in Storrs, got an apartment in Stamford, worked at a financial institute in Greenwich, and was leading a normal life until April 30, 2010.
On that day, Shannon was driving home from work when she had a seizure on Interstate 95, struck the car in front of her and veered off the highway. She woke up to find police officers looking into her vehicle.
Shannon was taken to the hospital, where tests revealed brain cancer. She said the diagnosis came "out of the blue."
Chemotherapy and radiation treatments were started and she underwent a craniotomy to remove tissue from the tumor.
"They said they got 99.9 percent of it, but there was still a piece they couldn't get that was ingrained in her brain tissue," said her mother, Marilyn Dunleavy.
After all of the treatments, Shannon said she went into remission for about a year. By then, she had given up her apartment and was living back with her parents.
But one day, Shannon started losing sensation in her left arm and her pinky. She went back to the hospital and learned the cancer had returned.
"It was all in fast-forward mode by then," she said.
Her father, Martin Dunleavy, said Shannon's left arm and leg slowly became paralyzed and she had to start using a wheelchair. "And she's left-handed," her mother added.
"It's still hard to wrap my mind around, in terms of working, not being able to drive and my life not becoming recognizable to me," Shannon said. "And I'm not recognizable to myself."
Martin said steroids made his daughter very bloated. Shannon said the treatment for cancer is "brutal," and can be worse than the disease itself.
While again receiving treatment, Shannon said the benefits weren't outweighing the costs. Between showering, eating and being treated, she didn't have the time or energy to visit with family and friends.
"I was losing the good days and I could see that was happening rapidly," she said.
So Shannon consulted with her doctor and decided to go into hospice at home after Jan. 1.
"It means you've given up treatment and you've accepted that it's terminal," Martin said.
Now, Shannon just takes medication for pain and other symptoms and receives visits from doctors, nurse's aides, social workers and other health care providers each day.
"They've become like family," Shannon said.
Marilyn said the cancer has expanded and, while brain cancer doesn't spread to other parts of the body, it affects the body in other ways. She said the medication wasn't having any effect; the cancer just kept developing.
Breaking down in tears at times, Shannon said deciding to stop treatment was difficult, but those trips to the hospital were becoming "long and hard to do." She said she was left searching for the "good days."
Shannon said she didn't want to let her family and friends down with the decision, especially since she fought so hard in the beginning. But she came to terms with the fact she wasn't going to beat it and wanted to be honest.
"I didn't want people to think I was quitting," she said. "My parents said it was the bravest thing."
Now, as Shannon lies in her bed downstairs in the Tokeneke Road home, she receives visits from high school and college friends. They play board games and joke around. Her mother and sister sleep in the room with her at night.
Martin said when his daughter was diagnosed with cancer it was a life changer. "It's a nightmare, an incomprehensible nightmare," he said.
Shannon said she's looking forward to the party. While some relatives might not understand, she said, "For me, I have time to say, `I'm so glad you were part of my life.' "
There will be food at the event, along with memories from her family, a slide show and closing words from Shannon. She said she'll tell bad jokes and hopes they can have fun.
"We don't have to say `bye,' we can just say `hi' and then say bye at the end," Shannon said.
Her friends have started a website -- www.giveforward.com/supportthedunleavyfamily -- and are looking for donations to offset the enormous medical bills the family has incurred.