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7-year-old cancer survivor attends prom with sister

Sha'nayia Johnson, 18, a senior at Washington and

Sha'nayia Johnson, 18, a senior at Washington and Lee High School in Westmoreland County, gets ready with her little brother, JJ Brown, 7, to go to her senior prom at the Riverboat in Colonial Beach. Credit: Suzanne Carr Rossi / The Free Lance-Star via AP

ARLINGTON, Va. - Heads turned as Sha'nayia Johnson walked through the Riverboat on the Potomac in a white satin gown with a long train and crystal accents winking under the lights.

But attention soon turned to the dapper young man carrying the silky train.

"You the man!" someone called as 7-year-old JJ Brown walked behind his sister.

A group of women followed the tyke in the pale tuxedo.

"What a cutie pie," one of the women exclaimed.

Decked in an cream jacket, yellow shirt and white bow tie, JJ dutifully posed for pictures by his older sister's side at the restaurant and off-track betting facility on Saturday evening.

The pair dressed up for Sha'nayia's high school prom, but the evening was a celebration for more important reasons. The 18-year old will be the first in her family to graduate from high school, and the 7-year old had just successfully ended a six-year battle with cancer.

JJ had anticipated the night for months, waking up and asking, "Is the prom today?"

But the hype wasn't living up to his expectations. When his sister, a senior at Washington and Lee High School, invited him to be her date for the senior prom, JJ envisioned dancing and excitement.

Instead, he spent most of the day flinching from the flash of cameras as relatives sought to preserve the moment.

In between photo shoots, JJ feasted on his grandmother's homemade macaroni and cheese, his tuxedo carefully covered with a relative's robe. For years, the youngster struggled to eat as chemotherapy robbed him of his appetite. He lost weight and was much smaller than his twin brother.

But on the night of prom, JJ's white bow tie framed a pair of chubby cheeks. He's been gaining weight and, aside from some fatigue, seemed healthy.

Before prom, JJ's mother cuddled with the young boy and remembered when doctors told her that JJ's body was rejecting the medications he'd been given to fight neuroblastoma, a rare, aggressive cancer that primarily affects young children.

JJ was 17 months old when he started complaining of leg pains and fell down while walking. Doctors discovered the tumors and didn't give a good prognosis. For patients with JJ's risk level, the five-year survival rate is less than 50 percent.

JJ began a regimen of radiation, surgery and chemotherapy. In five years, he received treatment at three hospitals in three different states.

At Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, doctors told JJ's parents that they had exhausted his treatment options.

Christine Brown brought her son back to the Virginia Commonwealth University Health System in Richmond, where doctors tried creating a unique combination of cancer drugs JJ had already tried.

Early this year, he began treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Soon, JJ told everyone who would listen that he didn't need treatment.

"I don't have cancer anymore," he said repeatedly.

In March, a set of scans confirmed JJ's statements — there was no active cancer in his body.

"I told you I didn't have cancer," JJ said.

His family cautiously celebrated the news — JJ has been in remission before and will continue to receive treatments aimed at keeping cancer recurrences at bay.

But JJ's older sister, Sha'nayia, wanted to mark the occasion.

"We might as well celebrate, dress him up and make him all cute," she said.

So she asked JJ to be her date for the senior prom.

Sha'nayia ordered a corsage with yellow roses to match the pediatric cancer awareness ribbon. A friend crafted a custom dress for the occasion and Brown shopped for JJ's outfit.

Sha'nayia cut her curls the day before prom and sported a closely cropped hairdo. JJ's curls had started to grow back, and his wispy locks barely covered the jagged scar above his left ear, a relic from one of his surgeries.

JJ happily donned his tiny tuxedo and admired his sister's dress as the duo prepped for the prom. But within an hour, JJ was tired and resting on his mother's lap.

He perked up for the photo shoot at the Riverboat on the Potomac, cheerfully carrying the train of Sha'nayia's dress as the family looked for a good spot for portraits.

Then JJ spotted the claw game on the outskirts of the Keno room. He could no longer concentrate on pictures and asked everyone for a dollar to play. His sister gave him $5 and JJ enthusiastically bounded over to the game, but didn't win a prize.

He sulked for a moment before joining Sha'nayia on the wet concrete entrance to the Riverboat. Standing in front of a sunburst design, the pair posed for photos and greeted promgoers as they walked into the venue.

JJ moonwalked in front of the entrance. But he wasn't accompanying Sha'nayia into the prom. School rules dictated that only students and school chaperones could enter.

Sha'nayia slipped into the dance with her friends and the young man in the tux headed home.

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