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Friends lend winning hands

Posted: November 9, 2008 7:49 p.m.
Updated: November 10, 2008 4:59 a.m.
Susanna and Mike Gunning loved taking road trips to California's Central Coast. Together they shopped on the boardwalk in Cambria and sipped wine from the lush vineyards along the way.

When they were both diagnosed with cancer last year within months of each other, they vowed to take the journey hand in hand.

But after being "chemo buddies" for several months, the mother and father of two boys died from their illnesses.

Friends of the family hosted a Texas hold ‘em tournament Saturday night to raise funds for the Gunnings' two sons - Evan, 16, and Sean, 23.

"It was a celebration of life as well as an evening of hope and healing," said Judy Janusek, a friend of the family who helped organize the event. About 400 showed up and 160 participated in the tournament, she said. The event likely raised more than the goal of $30,000, Janusek said.

Susanna was diagnosed with stage four melanoma in January of 2006 and doctors performed surgery to remove a tumor from her brain. Mike was diagnosed with bladder cancer 10 months later and underwent surgery as well. The two became partners in chemotherapy for about three months and were side by side as they unsucessfully fought the same disease.

Susanna died on Nov. 23, 2007 at the age of 50. A few months later Mike was laid off from his job and he was also told his cancer had returned. He died on July 19 of this year just weeks after his 51st birthday.

"He missed her terribly. They were a very close family," Janusek said. "By June, he was just a broken man."

Susanna was an assistant in the nurse's office at North Park Elementary School. Mike was a digital animator.

"They both always had the positive outlook that everything was going to be OK," Sean said. "They kept each other going through all of it."

Janusek said six weeks before Susanna died, she was on hospice care but wanted to visit Mike in the hospital.

"She'd say ‘Why is everybody worrying about me?'" Janusek said. "There she was, dying, and she was trying to lift him up."

Janusek described the Gunnings as "the typical Santa Clarita family. They lived here for 21 years. They got wrapped up in whatever their kids did and were involved in the community."

A group of friends came together to help the boys after their parents died.

Janusek met the Gunnings four years ago, when Janusek herself was struggling with cancer. The Gunnings helped take care of her children while she was being treated.

"My kids were scared. Susanna and Mike were very compassionate," she said. "That's where my passion comes from. They were there for me. The least I could do was be there for them."

Saturday's event will help Sean and Evan pay for living expenses and help save for college, Sean said.

The brothers live with their aunt in the house their parents raised them in. Evan goes to Valencia High School and Sean plans to enroll in a music school in Hollywood in the spring.


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