Christopher Abeleda spent most of his first semester at UF playing basketball with his friends. He spent the entirety of the following semester in the hospital.
Abeleda, nicknamed Hopper, was diagnosed with leukemia at the beginning of Spring. Now, he is in clinical trials for a cancer treatment pill and is being honored as a hero for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society at the Light the Night Walk this evening.
The 19-year-old UF psychology sophomore was playing basketball with his brother and cousins on New Year’s Day when he began to feel weak at the start of the game.
“Within the first two seconds of the game, I started seeing stars and felt like fainting,” Abeleda said.
A visit to the doctor and a few blood tests later, Abeleda’s diagnosis was confirmed: He had Philadelphia-positive acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Abeleda’s sister, Mara Abeleda, a 24-year-old UF alumna, was in New York when she heard the results.
“As soon as we found out, I went straight home,” she said.
Their brother, C.J. Abeleda, also stopped his job search after graduating from the University of South Florida to join his family.
Abeleda said the diagnosis didn’t really bother him.
“To me, I’m just sick,” he said. “I told my doctor, ‘To me, it’s like having the flu.’ I’m confident I’m going to be OK.”
Abeleda received his chemotherapy treatments at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Orlando, where his medication intake gradually progressed.
“My hair stayed on for like three months,” Abeleda said. “I was determined not to lose it, even though it ended up falling.”
Regardless of the aggressive chemotherapy Abeleda was receiving, his optimism never diminished, and it never failed to show.
“Christopher was famous on his floor with all the nurses because he’d always be playing piano,” Mara Abeleda said. “Nurses were always happy to have him.”
A few months into treatment, Abeleda and his family received news that he may only live for two more years unless he underwent a bone marrow transplant. C.J. was found to be a perfect match. The family made preparations, knowing the operation was a risk to Abeleda’s life. It was the only option.
It was then that advancements in clinical trials for a drug called Sprycel were released. Abeleda’s oncologist informed him the risk of dying from a bone marrow transplant was much higher than it would be if he ingested Sprycel while continuing chemotherapy.
Now that Abeleda is in remission and the transplant is not currently necessary, he has returned to UF while still undergoing treatment. He has a full head of hair — usually covered by a beanie.
In the midst of Abeleda’s treatment, his sister received a call from Caroline Kim, a 21-year-old UF biology senior and the liaison between UF and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, a nationwide nonprofit that funds cancer research.
When Kim learned of Abeleda’s battle, she asked him to be one of the honored heroes of the Light the Night Walk, taking place at 6:30 p.m. at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Also honored will be Chris Rakacvky, a recent UF alumnus. Participants will carry illuminated balloons, honoring cancer patients and those affected.
“I would never even have thought that (Abeleda) was suffering,” said Kim. “I can’t even say if he’s suffering because he’s so normal.”
Upon hearing about the event, Mara Abeleda and her family started a team called Hope for Hopper. So far, the team has raised more than $5,000.
Abeleda still has two years of chemotherapy remaining, but he said he tries to maintain a normal lifestyle. Mostly, he aims to return to the basketball court.
“I missed intramurals last year with all my friends — I was really looking forward to it,” Abeleda said. “I finally get my chance, hopefully.”
A version of this story ran on page 3 on 10/17/2013 under the headline "UF student battling leukemia honored tonight in the Swamp"
Christopher Abeleda, 19, plays piano in the Reitz Union Auditorium while his sister, Mara Abeleda, 24, sits back and listens. Abeleda, who is one of the two honored heroes at tonight’s Light the Night Walk, has been battling leukemia since the start of his second semester at UF.