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Student's life offers lesson in inspiration

His teachers say Brian Sweeney is one of the best students they've ever taught. Band members say he's the best French horn player in the school. His guidance counselor calls him her adopted son, and nurses call him an inspiration. But his friends call him "cancer boy."

This year hasn't been easy for Brian. Not for him or for the people who know him best.

"My friends didn't know how to act at first," said Brian, who learned on the first day of summer last year that he had a rare form of cancer. "When they realized I didn't mind talking about it, it was okay. Now, they joke about it. They call me cancer boy."

In the last year, Brian has had to endure three surgeries and a school year filled with chemotherapy treatment _ plus all the regular teen-age traumas.

Despite the ordeal, Brian has maintained a 4.67 grade point average on a 4.0 scale. He is scheduled to graduate this week from Brandon High School, ranked 12th in a class of 519.

Brian has a rare form of muscle, or soft tissue, cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma. He said chemotherapy and radiation treatments make him tired and weaken his muscles. Brian expects to receive his last treatment this August. After that, he will visit the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center for frequent tests and wait to see how the chemotherapy works.

"Every year a person gets beyond treatment, they are that much closer to success," said Sandi Sweeney, Brian's stepmother.

Friends, teachers and parents say Brian is the kind of person who doesn't let anything get him down.

All year he kept up with school work, played in the marching band and orchestra, and went out for pizza dinners and bowling evenings with friends after football games. He wanted to work part time, too, but thought he might get too tired.

No one knows for sure if the chemotherapy will help him, but Brian plans to continue with his life. He has received an $8,000 scholarship to attend Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, where he wants to study engineering.

Last week, Brian walked the halls of Brandon High School, watching as others took their final exams. He was exempted from all his exams because of good grades.

Many students with cancer drop out of school and take classes at the cancer center over the phone. Brian refused. He wanted to stay in his honors classes at Brandon High School, and he didn't want to miss his senior year.

Brian undergoes chemotherapy once a week. Treatment makes him tired and sometimes nauseated, but even on days he has to go to the cancer center Brian returns to school for the rest of his classes.

Brian said he has problems sleeping, especially on the days he has chemotherapy. "My body feels like I'm rolling in a bed of needles, like when you're foot falls asleep."

He said dragging himself out of bed some mornings was difficult because of bruised and sore muscles, but he never was late for school.

"It got hard every once in a while," Brian said. "The teachers were a help, though. They gave me a little longer with the harder assignments."

He said his English teacher, Adelaide Sayers, gave him an extension on an important paper. Sayers said she would have taught Brian at home if that's what he had needed. Brian is one of the best students she has ever taught, she said.

"He brings an extra dimension to his assignments," Sayers said. "He always goes the extra step."

She first noticed how dedicated Brian was to his school work when he came to class with sculpted mythological characters he had made for an assignment.

"Others came in with posters," she said. "He just went the extra step."

Christine Williams, guidance counselor at Brandon High School, said she considers herself lucky to have had an opportunity to work with Brian.

Williams said she tries to visit her advisees at college when she can. She already is planning a trip to see Brian.

"He is my adopted son," she said.

Brian, modest and shy, is praised from all sides for his perseverance and responsibility. He doesn't consider himself a role model, but others do.

Children at the cancer center look up to him for guidance. Dan Sweeney, Brian's father, said the nurses told him about a 2-year-old cancer patient at the center who likes to imitate Brian. He saw Brian put a cloth over his face once during treatment to keep out the alcohol smell. Now the child refuses to go through treatment without a cloth.

"It's funny because the cloth is about as big as him," Dan Sweeney said.