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‘I’ve never felt more loved in my life.’ Centennial principal fights ovarian cancer ‘blown away’ by community support
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Centennial Arts Academy principal Leslie Frierson chats with third-graders Raleigh Jones, left, and Janaria Berry Wednesday, April 13, 2022, in the cafeteria. Frierson was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in November. Since then, she's undergone surgeries and chemotherapy, involving her school community in the journey. Students and faculty members have shown their support through initiatives like Wig Wednesday. - photo by Scott Rogers

If anyone knows the power of compassion and community support, it’s Centennial Arts Academy’s Leslie Frierson.

When ovarian cancer upturned the principal’s world as she knew it, students and staff banded together to share the load of her journey.

Frierson received her diagnosis Nov. 1 and underwent surgery the following week. Since then, she’s undergone a second surgery — with a final third on the horizon in May — and completed 18 rounds of chemotherapy. 

While she anticipated returning to school within a few days of the first operation, Frierson encountered a few setbacks that kept her at home until after the winter break. In her absence, Frierson said Centennial’s students “inundated” her with heartfelt cards, letters and pictures that now fill several baskets in her home.

“I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to part with them,” she said. “In Gainesville City Schools, our mottos are ‘Inspire, Nurture, Challenge and Prepare,’ and our children have inspired and nurtured me a whole lot this year. It’s blown me away. I’m so humbled and appreciative of everything that they’ve done. They have really risen to the challenge and shown what it means to be a good person and to care about someone else.”

Upon her return in January, the school institutionalized “Wig Wednesdays,” with students and staff donning new sets of locks to help Frierson feel comfortable and confident in her own.

“I’ve never felt more loved in my life,” Frierson said. “I’m so lucky, I’m so fortunate, I’m so blessed to be surrounded by so many people who care about me and want the best for me, and I believe they know I love them, too. Gratitude is the overwhelming emotion that I feel.”

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Centennial Arts Academy principal Leslie Frierson, left, and teacher Rachel Funk compare wigs Wednesday, April 13, 2022, in the school hallway. Frierson was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in November. Since then, she's undergone surgeries and chemotherapy, involving her school community in the journey. Students and faculty members have shown their support through initiatives like Wig Wednesday. - photo by Scott Rogers

In addition to “Wig Wednesdays” and morning prayer meetings, Frierson said the school also adopted “Comfy Pants Thursday” to coincide with her weekly chemo appointments — which she’d take a break from school to go to and return by afternoon.

According to Frierson, continuing to show up for her students was paramount.

“When I was out for two months, the children were worried and I just wanted them to know that I was going to be OK,” Frierson said. “There’s probably no one that has been able to escape knowing someone who’s battled cancer, and some haven’t been as successful as I have been. Coming back and them seeing me be the same Mrs. Frierson that they knew — that was important to me, just for them to see that I was determined to get better.”

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Centennial Arts Academy teachers Caroline Millwood, left, and Cree Nix show their wigs to third grader Mirra Pine, Wednesday, April 13, 2022, on Wig Wednesday at the school. Frierson was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in November. Since then, she's undergone surgeries and chemotherapy, involving her school community in the journey. Students have shown their support through initiatives like Wig Wednesday. - photo by Scott Rogers

The daughter of Philip DeMore, retired minister of Gainesville First United Methodist Church, Frierson is a firm believer in the power of prayer and she gives thanks to all who’ve offered one on her behalf.

“Without a doubt, that’s what’s gotten me to this point,” she said. “I have been the recipient of thousands of prayers — that is why I’m still here.”

As for DeMore, his heart swells with pride for the way his daughter has held fast not just to faith, but to hope.

“She’s taken this devastating news and made lemonade,” he said.

Looking back, Frierson said the last five months have at once felt like a blur and a lifetime — and through it all, she’s never felt alone. 

“I was so blown away by the level of support I received, and I hope that others going through this have that same type of support,” Frierson said. “It makes all the difference. I can’t imagine going through this alone or without a community that really rallied and reminded me of what I was fighting for. I don’t know what the future holds for me, but as long as I am able to, I’m going to continue to smack a smile on and go with it, because I think it’s made the children feel better and in turn, it’s made me feel better.”