Diana Fillipps expected the very first Christmas she celebrated with her husband and newborn son to be one of the happiest days of her life.
It didn’t quite turn out that way.
Fillipps was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia on Christmas of 2012. She was 29.
Three years later, Fillipps delivered a speech during the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Light the Night Walk at the University of Florida on Oct. 22. “I know firsthand what it is like to be a survivor,” said Fillipps, this year’s “honored hero.”
Light the Night brought in $58 million dollars nationally in 2014, said Kelley Lesperance, the executive director for the organization.
Event Coordinator Christopher Abeleda, a 21-year-old UF psychology student from Kissimmee, has a lot in common with Fillipps.
As a freshman, Abeleda was
diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2013 and was the event’s hero for the last two years.
“Cancer’s been a reoccurring theme in my family, so it means a lot to me to be involved,” said Abeleda, who has been in remission since receiving a bone marrow transplant from his brother in January 2014.
“I’m humbled, and it’s my turn to kind of give back and hopefully give other people a good time,” he said.
Gainesville’s fundraising efforts brought in just over $46,000 in 2014, but the event has raised more than $60,000 this year, Lesperance said.
“It’s a time to celebrate life and to come together, celebrate your family,” Abeleda said.
That’s true for Fillipps, who very much depended on her family to beat the disease that affects 1 in 750 adults, according to the American Cancer Society.
Leaving four-month-old Bryce with her in-laws, Fillipps went through her two rounds of chemotherapy in 2013. She later received a stem cell transplant from her brother in April 2013 despite a 20 percent chance of finding a true match between her two siblings.
Despite her disease, Fillipps found solace in her doctors and caregivers who weren’t much older or different than she was.
“They saw me go through it, and we’re the same age. I have little ones and they have little ones,” she said.
Fillipps isn’t the only one who believes local doctors have changed their life for the better.
Zoe Arthurson-McColl came to Gainesville from Alberta, Canada to earn her criminology doctorate. She thought it was stress-related exhaustion that landed her in the hospital in March of 2014 before she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.
The 24-year-old UF junior underwent five different rounds of chemotherapy and received a bone marrow transplant in July 2014 — and still managed to graduate on time.
“I’m very grateful for the hard work of the doctors here, because I know that I wouldn’t be alive if I had received treatment somewhere else,” she said.
Fillipps sees the fundraising event as a way for locals to unite, she said.
“I’ve made friends though Facebook: three other girls with the same disease and who had a transplant at the same time I did,” she said, adding that they are “sisters” and have met once in Denver for a celebratory weekend.
Light the Night was the first time that Fillipps has participated in any cancer-related community outreach. It won’t be her last, she said.
“I’m going to speak to admire the survivors and honor the taken,” she said. “I have a motto that I’ve learned and want to share: ‘one day, one step, and one moment at a time.’”