The man doesn't really like to speak about himself. "It makes me break," he says, "and I don't like to break." Yet he does speak, frequently and publicly, about a time he might have broken and didn't.

It was just four years ago, on a Friday morning, and Tom Harper had only one thing on his mind: Michigan.

Navy's football team was about to fly to Ann Arbor to play the fourth-ranked Wolverines the next day. Harper, a robust, 220-pound tight end, was churning with anticipation. But as he and a few teammates worked out in Annapolis before boarding the team plane, Harper began to churn with pain.

It had been coming. Over the last few days, a stomach ache would not go away. Two bottles of Pepto-Bismol had helped, but not enough.

Now it was a general ache through the middle third of the body. So Midshipman Tom Harper, thinking it was probably just nerves, went to see a doctor.

By that night, his teammates were in Ann Arbor. By that night, Tom Harper had undergone surgery for cancer.

It was a month before he was allowed to get out of his Bethesda Naval Hospital bed. It was another month before Harper got a chance to sneak a look at his chart. The most recent entry read: "Prognosis looks bad - maybe three."

Harper soon wheeled the truth out of a nurse. The "three" referred to months. As in months to live.

At 19, it appeared that a midshipman with steely blue eyes was about to prove that cancer, as he puts it, is "an equal opportunity killer."

To ease Harper's downslide - and on the outside chance of saving a man whose cancer had riddled his stomach and lungs - navy doctors began intensive chemotherapy. And for reasons as unknown as the causes of the disease itself, Harper began to respond.

It took three years - two of chemotherapy, another of radiation.And it has taken its toll - Harper can no longer even consider playing football, and he has "no stamina at all."

But, brother, he says he'll be there this spring when the graduating mids all toss their caps in the air. "You think that won't feel good?" Harper asks. And then he turns his head so the tears won't show.

If anyone has earned his privacy, it would be this fifth of eight children from San Mateo, Calif. But Harper's inclination is just the reverse. He has embarked on a series of speeches to prove to whoever asks, just by standing in front of them and talking to them, that cancer can be cured.

So there he was on a recent Thursday night, rising to speak at the kickoff dinner of Dancers Against Cancer, an annual 72-hour boogiethon through which a University of Maryland fraternity raises funds for the American Cancer Society.

Harper greeted his audience, and admitted that some of the "scenery" was a little blonder and better than what they give you at the Naval Academy. Then he started to weave a spell.

"I lost my hair. I had trouble going up stairs," Harper said. "I learned a lot about humility, about faith, about courage."

He licked cancer "half because I was game, and half because an awful lot of people cared," Harper told the audience. "It was a bewildering, challenging, exhausting experience. But I learned there is victory over cancer."

Harper told of the lonely moments. He would sneak out of the Naval Hospital and walk all the way to Georgetown, pausing every few minutes to gasp for breath.

He would sit despondentlyover one beer in an M Street bar. Then he would call the hospital, admit his escape and wait for military police to come and pick him up.

Harper said he has given a lot of talks since he recovered, but none previous to this one to people his own age.

"So this is the first one that hits me," he said. "Because you are me."

They stood and applauded, and afterward dozens pumped his hand. Then it was off to the danceathon, where Harper fired the starter's pistol that opened festivities. Then he sat in a relatively quiet corner of rocking, socking Ritchie Coliseum and recounted what cancer at 19 had meant.

"I guess I believed all along I was going to make it," said Harper. "I think about what it means to be told you have three months to live more now than I did then.

"You can't think recurrence. If you do, it'll drive you up the wall. And you have to turn off all your emotions. If I didn't do that, I wouldn't be able to talk about it."

The ironies are what stick in Harper's mind. He especially remembers one day of elation, a day the doctors told him he would not need lung surgery.

"When they said no surgery, they meant no hope," Harper said, no able to smile at the memory. "But like a fool, I said, 'Great!'"

He feels he survived the treatments and the mental strain "only because I was in tip-top shape - I was 220 solid," Harper said.

There was a lot to survive. Chemotherapy, chiefly doses of a drug called bleomycin, routinely made Harper sick, and at one stage he lost all his hair.

"I never cried, but I sweated a lot," Harper said. "And sometimes I was just too tired to do either."

Perhaps the happiest memory of the entire lonely three years was the day Harper's doctor told him the Naval Academy would welcome him back. He did miss a year's work, but now Harper plans, like most Annapolites, on a navy career. His will be in the supply corps.

Tom Harper is far from perfect. He has a radiation scar on his left lung, and he cannot do anything sustained and physical. As an example, he recently ran a mile in 6:30, the Academy maximum - and spent hours afterward being sick. Before his illness, he could run a mile in 5:10 "without breaking much of a sweat."

But he can still speak, and he plans to continue.

"If there was a way to do this and live, I'd do it," Harper said. What makes it worth it? "A patient at Bethesda told me the other day, 'Man, you're an inspiration to me,'" Harper recalled. "That proved I can do something to help."

Tom Harper will be 24 years old on Dec. 12. He realizes that "will be" would have read "would have been" just a couple of years ago. And he realizes something else:

"I have just as much chance of getting cancer tomorrow," says Tom Harper, smoothing down his service dress blue uniform, "as you do."