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Plum woman documents late son's cancer battle

| Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012, 8:58 p.m.
Michael Dunlap poses with his parents Sue Ellen and Bill in a photo from 2010. Sue Ellen Dunlap has written a book in memory of Michael Dunlap, who died in 2011 from a brain tumor. Bill Shirley | For the Plum Advance Leader
Photo by Bill Shirley Michael Dunlop, 24, at home.
2443 - Michael Dunlop at home with his girlfriend Missy Zielonka and the couple's dog Sid. Bill Shirley | For the Plum Advance Leader
Michael Dunlap poses for a photo. Behind him are, from left, his father, Bill Dunlap; his mother Sue Ellen Dunlap; and his girlfriend Missy Zielonka. Sue Ellen Dunlap has written a book in memory of her son, who died in 2011 of a brain tumor. Bill Shirley | For the Tribune Review

Michael Dunlap wanted to write the story of his battle with brain cancer.

But Dunlap, 24, of Plum, died before he could fulfill the desire to tell his story.

Dunlap's wish, though, was not forgotten.

Sue Ellen Dunlap, 58, of Plum, Michael's mother, recently completed “Love and Miss You,” the story of how Michael successfully underwent treatment for one brain tumor, was cancer-free for a few years and then battled a second brain tumor to which he succumbed March 27, 2011.

She began writing the self-published book “in earnest” in September 2011 after taking notes and gathering her ideas during a “difficult summer.”

“It has been a long year-and-a-half,” Sue Ellen Dunlap said.

“It was an emotional journey and a labor of love to publish his story for him.”

Sue Ellen Dunlap writes about Michael's first diagnosis of a brain tumor in 2007 when he was 20 and a student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She details the “torturous” times of waiting for test results and ultimately receiving the diagnosis of cancer and Michael's treatments.

In the next part of the book, she writes about the diagnosis in August 2010 of Michael's second brain tumor as well as chemotherapy treatments and the emotions associated with Michael's deteriorating condition toward the end of his life.

Sue Ellen Dunlap also includes in the book the letter she wrote to Michael on the first anniversary of his death — March 27, 2012.

“My dear son, I want to thank you for letting me be your mother,” Sue Ellen Dunlap writes. “How proud you made me over the years. How many wonderful memories I will always cherish.”

Michael was nine credits short of obtaining his master's degree in English when he fell ill the second time. Michael wanted to follow in his parents' footsteps and become a teacher — in particular a college professor. Sue Ellen Dunlap is a teacher in the Riverview School District. Michael's father, Bill, 57, is a Gateway School District teacher.

Sue Ellen also includes passages that Michael wrote including emails he sent to his parents while he was at IUP.

Michael repeatedly tried to assure his parents he was OK and told them not to worry about him. Michael also writes in 2009 about his time in graduate school at IUP including playing hockey, one of his greatest passions.

The book also includes photos of Michael and family members.

Sue Ellen said she and her family members are living their lives “giving back.”

She said the family appreciates the support of those who helped out when Michael got sick.

She said her husband makes crosses and places them on the graves of U.S. Marine veterans at the Plum Creek Cemetery.

The Dunlaps also adopted a two-mile stretch of Route 286 extending from the park-and-ride in Monroeville to Pine Valley Drive in Plum in Michael's memory.

The Dunlaps periodically conduct cleanups along the stretch of roadway. The next one is scheduled for Saturday.

“We are trying to give back to the community and find ways to be helpful,” Sue Ellen said.

Any proceeds from the book will be used to purchase a bench at IUP in Michael's honor. Sue Ellen Dunlap also would use proceeds from the sale of the book to train the family's Irish setter to become a therapy dog for cancer patients.

“I'm not writing it to make money,” Sue Ellen said. I want to fulfill (Michael's) dream to have a story for family and friends.”

Sue Ellen Dunlap said the goal of her book is to be an inspiration to others who are going through difficult times.

“If I can inspire at least one person to realize when life is bad, there are things to look forward to,” she said. “Michael could have quit school after the first brain tumor, but he kept working toward his goal.”

“Love and Miss You” is available for purchase at, and

Karen Zapf is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8753, or

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