UF student stays positive in leukemia battle

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The room in Tolbert Hall at the University of Florida that Chris Abeleda shares with his roommate, Avi Khorran, is cluttered.

Clothing, shoes and bags are scattered around the floor, rows of basketball shoes are stacked under the loft beds, posters are on the walls, and books and notebooks lay haphazardly on desks.

Two guitars occupy opposite corners of the dorm room. A photo of Chris’ girlfriend since high school, Ruby Quirindongo, is posted on his wall calendar.

It’s the same room the two occupied last fall, before Chris was diagnosed with leukemia and had to withdraw for a semester to start chemotherapy.

“I’m glad we got the same room,” Chris said. “It’s kind of a big room, an old triple converted into a double.”

His close-cropped jet black hair, which he hides under a beanie, is finally coming in thick and dark again after months of thin, patchy growth.

“I thought I looked good bald,” Chris says with characteristic optimism.

It’s easy to be upbeat. He has very supportive friends and family. For instance, when he first went into the hospital last spring, his brother, his male cousins, even his sister’s boyfriend, all shaved their heads.

That family support has given him the strength to make it back to University of Florida this fall. Chris is trying to rush back into his old life as much as he can, attending classes, working out at the gym, and playing basketball with friends.

He’s also busy with the Asian American Student Union and the UF Filipino Student Association — with a dance audition Monday for the FSA Cultural Dance team and rehearsals on his guitar for an Asian Kaleidoscope Month talent contest Friday.

He realized how out of shape he was when he took part in a treasure hunt for Asian Kaleidoscope Month.

“I was the weakest link,” he says.

His older sister, Mara, who graduated from UF in 2012, has to warn him to take it easy.

“He’s 19. He thinks he’s invincible,” Mara says. “He has to remember he’s still sick and will be on chemo for another two years.”


Chris is one of two UF students who was chosen as an “honored hero” by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society North and Central Florida Chapter for its Light the Night Walk recently at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, said Debbie Jeffrey, campaign specialist for LLS.

The other, Christopher Rakaczky, is a recent UF computer science engineering graduate.

“Generally, we pick one each year,” Jeffrey said. “But I found out about these two students at UF, and it was hard to choose just one. We decided, why not? So we chose two.”

The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society is a leading information resource for patients diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma, said Maria Avenancio, patient services manager for LLS. “LLS helps newly diagnosed patients access treatments and support so they can have the best possible outcome,” she said.

Rakaczky, 23, was diagnosed in March with T-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia during his last semester of college. He postponed his graduation and began his treatments, then returned in the summer to finish his coursework.

When he got the news that he was in remission, he contacted LLS to ask how he could help.

“I felt there was this calling that said I should get involved and share my story, to be proactive, and not be afraid to talk about it,” Rakaczky said. “It’s (also) a nice outlet for stress and meeting other people that have it.”

Rakaczky lives in Gainesville, and goes to chemo once a month. He is planning to move to Maryland in November for a job with Raytheon and will continue his treatment at Johns Hopkins.


Chris Abeleda enrolled in the 2012 fall term at UF and immediately took part in an active campus life. Yet throughout the semester, he grew increasingly tired. Then, at home in Orlando during winter break while playing a game of one-on-one with his brother, Chris felt faint.

“I started seeing stars,” he said.

His father took him to the doctor for blood tests, and Chris returned to UF.

A week later, he got his test results back. He had a white blood count of 57,000. He searched the Internet and discovered it was way above the normal range between 4,000 and 11,000, and could mean he had leukemia.

Chris’ father took him home for more tests. A bone marrow biopsy confirmed that Chris had Philadelphia-positive Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia — the type that inflicts one in 20 children who have leukemia and one in three adults with leukemia.

They scheduled the first round of treatment for Chris. He had no idea what he was in for.

“I medically withdrew from school,” Chris says. “I wasn’t expecting to be gone so long.”


Chris told his doctor he would “beat the record for getting cured the fastest.” He was scheduled to be in the hospital for a month for initial treatment, but was out in three weeks. He remained at his parents’ home through the summer for follow-up treatments and consultations with different doctors about his options for bone marrow, or stem cell, transplants.

They consulted with Dr. Lamis Eldjerou, a pediatric hematology and oncology specialist at UF Health Shands. They also traveled to Houston to consult with Dr. Laurence James Neil Cooper at MD Anderson Center at the University of Texas.

A bone marrow transplant would be risky, and Chris would have to spend three months in the hospital. While they considered their options, his doctors said Chris was having great success with the new medication he was on, dasatinib, which goes by the trade name Sprycel.

His oncologist told Chris that the risk of dying from a bone marrow transplant was higher than continued intensive chemo treatment with Sprycel, which is taken orally. The transplant was canceled.

In July, his doctor told Chris he was in remission and could start the final, long-term maintenance phase of treatment.


Treatment for Philadelphia-Positive ALL has improved dramatically in the past 10-15 years, said Dr. William Slayton, division chief and program director for pediatric oncology at Shands.

The Philadelphia chromosome splices two genes together that should never be together — the BCR and ABL, he said. When combined, they produce an abnormal protein that flips a switch that allows cells to divide uncontrollably.

Dasatinib keeps that switch from flipping “so the cells are no longer dividing in an uncontrollable way and eventually those cells die off,” said Slayton, who also chairs the Children’s Oncology Group trial piloting the use of dasatinib with chemotherapy as an alternative to transplants.

Its predecessor drug, imatinib, has already shown to have a higher cure rate when combined with chemotherapy than bone marrow transplants, which can cause death.

“Essentially, we consider this a cure,” Slayton said. “There is a small number of patients that get it back after five years, probably less than 1 percent.”


Chris got a medical release from his doctor to return to school this fall, and Mara and his brother C.J., who graduated from University of South Florida this spring, both decided to follow Chris back to help him make the transition back to school. They live in an apartment 10 minutes away.

Chris still has at least two years of chemotherapy along with the Sprycel. He goes to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Orlando once a month for chemotherapy, and looks forward to getting his strength back.

“The worse thing about being sick is I couldn’t play basketball,” Chris says. “I have to start all over again.”


Information from: The Gainesville (Fla.) Sun, http://www.gainesvillesun.com

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