High School Sports

Gulliver standout overcomes bone tumor to return for playoffs

Gulliver guard Shannon Kunkel developed a tumor in her right leg her freshman year that has sidelined her for long stretches of her career. After multiple surgeries, the tumor is gone and Kunkel is back just in time to try to help Gulliver win a state championship.
Gulliver guard Shannon Kunkel developed a tumor in her right leg her freshman year that has sidelined her for long stretches of her career. After multiple surgeries, the tumor is gone and Kunkel is back just in time to try to help Gulliver win a state championship. a1fernandez@miamiherald.com

Shannon Kunkel played through the pain until she just couldn’t anymore.

But the most frustrating part was that cycle repeating itself throughout most of her high school basketball career just when she thought she had found relief.

“It was scary because with most injuries you know you can rehab and come back quickly,” Kunkel said. “With something like this, it was just frustrating not knowing when I’d be able to come back and since it wasn’t letting me do the things I know I’m capable of doing on the court.”

Kunkel, a senior at Gulliver Prep, has dealt with osteoid osteoma, a benign bone tumor most common in long bones (such as the femur and tibia). She developed the condition in her right leg during her freshman year.

The tumor was located below her knee around her right shin and caused Kunkel tremendous pain and leg inflammation, which impaired not only her ability to play basketball but to even walk.

Kunkel, a 5-9 point guard, underwent three surgeries over the course of her freshman and sophomore years, but none were able to prevent the tumor from returning.

Finally, Kunkel tried a relatively new procedure called high-intensity focused ultrasound and the tumor seems to have been removed once and for all.

Kunkel flew to California with her family and underwent that surgery in January at Stanford University. Since then, Kunkel has stopped feeling pain.

“It’s such a relief now because I can sleep and I don’t have to take any of the medicines,” Kunkel said. “It’s been great waking up and knowing I will be able to do little things without being in pain.”

Kunkel, who has signed with Hawaii Pacific University, a Division-II school, has played in only 13 of Gulliver’s 31 games this season, but is still averaging 14.7 points, 6.9 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game.

Kunkel returned to Gulliver’s lineup just before the start of the playoffs and helped the Raiders beat Monsignor Pace and avenge a district championship loss to Keys Gate on Tuesday. On Friday night, Gulliver will take on Cardinal Gibbons for a chance to advance to state for the second time in four seasons.

Kunkel, who played her first two high school seasons at Lourdes Academy, where her mother, Diane, used to coach, first noticed the tumor in January 2014, when she began feeling pain and noticed a lump by her right shin.

Doctors originally believed it may have been a stress fracture, but an MRI revealed the tumor. The first surgery, a procedure using extreme heat to remove all the cells followed, and appeared to remove the tumor. But the pain returned three months later. A more prolonged procedure again provided only temporary relief, and the subsequent medications often caused Kunkel side effects like nausea and insomnia.

Eventually the tumor resurfaced before this season. Kunkel said she heard about the trial surgery after the tumor resurfaced before this season. But the procedure costs about $60,000, and due to its experimental nature, Kunkel could not get medical insurance to cover the costs.

Gulliver’s players stepped up for their ailing teammate and raised $8,000 to help Kunkel through an online fundraiser.

Gulliver coach John Zambolla said the parent of a former Gulliver player who is friends with Kunkel’s family and requested to remain anonymous, covered the difference.

“I’m just so happy for her because she’s a great kid and it was so tough to see her have to go through all of that,” Zambolla said. “Her coming back has really put everything in place for us at the perfect time.”

Doctors advised caution post-surgery, but Kunkel said there was no way she’d miss the chance to help Gulliver win a championship.

“I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to play again,” Kunkel said. “But knowing I’d be able to soon enough for the playoffs, I was happy to be able to get back and help them win.”

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