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Childhood cancer survivor works toward career in cancer research

Nathan Sweeney recipient of $20,000 Chahta Foundation doctorate scholarship

“I hope my name becomes synonymous with cancer research,” says Nathan Sweeney, a 30-year-old graduate student studying for his Ph.D. in Cancer Biology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Ariz.

SweeneyFam2013
Nathan Sweeney with his wife, Linnley,
and their chocolate Labrador, Reese.

One tool Sweeney is using to help realize that dream is a $20,000 doctoral scholarship awarded to him by the Chahta Foundation this past year. Sweeney was one of seven recipients of the scholarship, which was awarded for the first time in 2013.

Sweeney’s path to choosing a career in cancer research was one that began for him when he was just a toddler. “I chose to pursue a degree in cancer biology because of my childhood,” he explains. “When I was 16 months [old] I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.”

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow and the most common type of childhood cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. After a year-and-a-half-long battle and treatments, doctors declared Sweeney cured of his leukemia.

“My parents rejoiced!” he says, but the family’s time of celebration was short-lived. Sweeney’s leukemia returned just a brief six months later – only this time the cancer was a more aggressive form, taking its toll for a much longer period of time than his first bout.

“I was a fortunate patient [though,]” says Sweeney, optimistically. “After I battled it for five years I went into remission and I’ve been in remission ever since. And I believe after you’ve been in remission for 10 years then you’re called a long-term survivor. I proudly say I’m a long-term survivor.”

This fight during his childhood is what brought him to where he is today, pursuing his doctorate in cancer research so that he can, in his words, “get the last laugh” when it comes to cancer.

“I want to make it so receiving the news of the diagnosis of cancer is not as difficult to take,” he says, “that people will know that there are treatments out there. I want to be a part of that.”

After he graduates, which he expects to do in 2017, he plans to continue with his current work in a cancer prevention lab where he studies colon cancer. “I find it very exciting,” he says. “I enjoy it. There are good things happening and great things to come. It’s such an exciting field to be in, not just prevention but cancer research in general. There are a lot of remarkable people working in this field and it’s a good place to be. There are a lot of good things to come so stay tuned!”

He says he’s incredibly grateful for the scholarship he received from the Chahta Foundation, which he considers a gift. “It’s something that’s precious to me; something that I cherish and I work hard every day to be worthy of this gift.”

He applied for the scholarship a year ago after reading a notification on Facebook advertising the education opportunities available from the foundation. For the Fall 2013 semester, the Chahta Foundation offered the Chahta Doctorate Scholarship to a student who had been accepted into the doctorate program of their choice.

“I knew it was going to be difficult because I knew there’d be a lot of qualified applicants,” he says, but he thought he’d give it a shot. A lot of qualified applicants indeed, according to Chahta Foundation Scholarship Specialist Scott Wesley.

“We initially planned to give one scholarship but we received so many qualified, deserving applicants that we decided to award seven,” Wesley says. “Our board came together and quickly raised the money to fund the other six for a total of seven doctorate scholarships.”

Sweeney says he was “deeply honored and overwhelmed with emotion” when he received the award. “It’s been a great blessing in my life and wife [Linnley’s] life, and my chocolate lab, Reese’s, life,” he says. “We have been so touched by it.

“It’s made everything possible. It’s enabled me to pursue my dream of cancer research. I just hope that I’m able to be an example of the Choctaw people and the Chahta Foundation,” an example he says was set for him by his late grandfather, Rufus Sweeney.

His grandfather was his hero. It is through him that he receives his Choctaw heritage and Sweeney says he tries to be like him every day. “He was an example of love, of kindness, of charity and hard work. He’s the kind of person who said when you do it, do it right and do it right the first time and have fun while you do it.”

Sweeney relayed a story about his grandfather that was told by a cousin at their grandfather’s funeral. Sweeney’s cousin was serving in Iraq, feeling homesick, when he received a small care package from his grandfather. Inside was a single, carefully wrapped Symphony chocolate bar, his cousin’s favorite and one unavailable where he was currently serving.

This simple gesture spoke volumes to his cousin and to Sweeney as well.

“I think this tells you two things about my grandpa,” Sweeney says. “One, that he knows your favorite kind of chocolate bar, and two, that he knows when you’re homesick and when you need to feel that you’re loved.”

He said his cousin went on to say that no matter the distance they were from their grandfather, his love was always felt.

“And I don’t think my grandfather can be any farther away than he is now but I don’t think I’ve ever felt his love more strongly than I do now. I miss my grandpa and I strive every day to emulate the person that he was by the way that I live.”

One way Sweeney does this is through his work.

Sweeney says, “I hope when you hear my name again it’s tied to my discoveries or to my work that I’ve done and I hope to make the Choctaw people and the Choctaw Nation proud.”

Chahta Foundation Director Stacy Shepherd added, “This is what it’s all about –helping a Choctaw student achieve his or her unique potential. There are many more stories like Nathan’s that need to be told. Chahta scholarships create a means for strengthening Choctaws and expanding their opportunities.”

The Chahta Foundation is again offering the scholarships this year – the Chahta Masters Scholarship in the amount of $12,000, and the Chahta Doctorate Scholarship of $20,000. The application period is open from Jan. 15 to March 31. All applications and more information can be found at chahtafoundation.com. Anyone with questions can call the Chahta Foundation at 1-800-522-6170, ext. 2546.