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Calhoun's Dean Brownworth back on court after treatment for brain cancer

Calhoun's Dean Brownworth warms up with his team

Calhoun's Dean Brownworth warms up with his team prior to playing Freeport. (Feb. 16, 2013) Credit: Steve Pfost

Dean Brownworth came off the bench in Calhoun's game against Herricks on Jan. 18, scored three points and sent the crowd into a tizzy.

It had nothing to do with the game going into overtime, and, in truth, after building a big halftime lead, Calhoun let the game slip away in the end.

The cheers were for Brownworth alone. Little more than a year after doctors removed a malignant tumor from his brain, the senior suited up and, by getting into a game, accomplished what he had long set out to do.

"I was nervous . . . definitely nervous," Brownworth said. "And then when I scored the [layup]-and-one, everyone was going crazy . . . "

"He got a standing ovation," added his mother, Sandra Brownworth.

"When I came off the bench," Dean said, "everyone cheered."

Appearing in the game wasn't a simply symbolic gesture. Despite a year spent in and out of hospitals, the former starter still could play. Seven days later, he suited up again. Four days after that, Brownworth, 17, scored a season-high 10 points.

Two months earlier, he was getting chemotherapy treatments.


Accidental fall, startling discovery

In November 2011, two days after Thanksgiving, Brownworth slipped in the shower, hitting the base of his skull against the ceramic tile. On the following Monday, during basketball practice, he began to feel the symptoms of a concussion, his mother said. After going to the emergency room and getting a diagnosis, Sandra and her husband, Wayne, followed up with Dean's neurologist, Dr. Rami Grossman. Having treated Dean since the boy suffered from childhood migraines, he was intent on performing an MRI and other tests. He found a mass.

"[The doctor] says to come right in, and I'm shaking as I go to pick Dean up," Sandra said. "He sees my face, and he's like, 'What's wrong?' "

All indications were that the 21/2-centimeter lesion was benign, but it needed to be removed, Brownworth's parents said Grossman told them. Dr. Steven Schneider, a neurosurgeon out of North Shore-LIJ Cohen Children's Medical Center, confirmed the finding, his mother said.

"It was kinda unreal," Dean said. A four-hour surgery on Dec. 15, 2011, had its share of good news and bad. The mass was eradicated, but after sending it to testing, it turned out Dean had a medulloblastoma, a relatively rare, fast-growing tumor. With the tumor still in the very early stages (doctors estimated it had been growing for a few months), Dean was asymptomatic, his mother said.

"To hear that your child has a brain tumor sends a parent into a panic and tailspin," Sandra said. "To then find out that the tumor was not benign but malignant was the most devastating and scary news."

The discovery meant Dean had a long road ahead to ensure the cancer didn't return. The Brownworths opted for a less invasive treatment -- proton, rather than the traditional photon, radiation. The decision led the family to move into a hotel near Massachusetts General Hospital from January to March 2012.

Dean received radiation treatment Monday through Friday and dropped 20 pounds.

"The radiation caused this horrible smell," Dean said. "I don't even want to think about it . . . [and] I had no stamina. I felt completely beat. Like I couldn't do anything."

Despite this, Dean remained positive, Wayne said -- a tendency he learned while dealing with the childhood migraines, which had nothing to do with his tumor.

"The one thing he told me from the start is that they got the tumor out, so I don't have cancer anymore," Wayne said. "We just kind of went along with it. So then it became like, now we just have to get through the rest of this."


Chemotherapy . . .

and the road back

Brownworth's chemotherapy began last April -- three cycles of in- and out-patient treatment that spanned until the day before Thanksgiving. Though he's in remission, he can't be considered cured until his MRIs are clean for 10 years, Sandra said. With the help of tutors, he finished 11th grade on time and hopes to attend Cornell in September 2013.

The Calhoun district, which rallied around him during his illness, was just as attentive in his recovery. Brownworth's basketball coach -- Jay Kreutzberger -- became his social studies tutor. Brownworth was named homecoming king even before going back to school. He got a girlfriend. Things began to look up. He started to shoot baskets in the hoop out in front of his Merrick home and took to the stationary bike in his room.

"I just started playing again," he said.

A starter since the 10th grade, Brownworth attended tryouts, and his coach held the spot for him.

"I think he knew I was going to get back," Brownworth said. "And my teammates were excited and proud of me. I guess I was a motivation."

Brownworth's first day back to school was Jan. 2, and he attended practice the same day.

"It was always a goal for him," Wayne said. "We were always saying, baseball [season], we'll focus on baseball, and he was always saying no, 'I'm going to focus on basketball. I'm going to get back.' Realistically, I'm thinking he's going to finish with chemo in November . . . I'm thinking, no way."

Instead, Brownworth was honored as one of the players on senior night about two weeks ago. His mom cried and his coach told the assembled crowd what Brownworth's struggle had demonstrated.

"The coach came out and said, 'I kept telling Dean that he needed to get tougher [in 10th grade],' " Sandra said. "He goes, 'but now I know he's the toughest kid out of the whole team.' "

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