Humans of UK: Johnny Kirkpatrick reflects on lost time and his battle with cancer


Johnny Kirkpatrick, a junior majoring in chemical engineering at the University of Kentucky, poses for a portrait on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, at Gatton Student Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Carter Skaggs | Staff

Laurel Swanz, Staff Reporter

Johnny Kirkpatrick was less than three months into his freshman year of college when he got the news. 

He had acute lymphoblastic leukemia. 

A healthy, varsity soccer player in high school, Kirkpatrick found the diagnosis hard to believe at first. 

He started feeling sick in early October 2019. 

Like most college freshmen, Kirkpatrick was focused on adjusting to his new environment at the time. He was keeping up with his classes for his chemical engineering degree and making new friends. He even joined the UK mens club soccer team. 

But when he tried to play soccer or exercise, he would feel sick and often throw up. He was constantly exhausted and slept at least 10 hours a day.

“I didn’t really know what was wrong, and as a normal 18 year old boy, I just refused to go to the hospital because I thought it would resolve itself,” Kirkpatrick said. 

When it didn’t, he caved and went to University Health Services. They performed blood tests and sent him home to wait for the results. 

At around 10 p.m. that night, Kirkpatrick was in his dorm room getting ready for bed when his phone rang.

He answered to a woman saying she was from the Office of Hematology and Oncology and that he needed to go to the emergency room immediately. 

With his parents almost four hours away in his hometown of Paducah, Kentucky, Kirkpatrick called his brother, who was attending pharmacy school at UK, for help. 

“I knew something was very wrong. I called my brother,” Kirkpatrick said. “I was kinda freaking out, and he took me to the ER.”

Around 3 a.m. on Nov. 4, 2019, an attending told Kirkpatrick he had cancer.

“He did not deliver the news well,” Kirkpatrick said. “He was just like, ‘You probably have cancer, like, you have leukemia.’ It was not very comforting. I honestly didn’t have that much of an initial reaction. It was more shock than anything.”

Reality didn’t set in for him until the next night, when he told his closest friends from home that he was sick and cried for the first time. 

His brother handled telling their parents. 

“He called them and told them to pack a bag for a few days, Johnny might be in the hospital for a little bit,” Kirkpatrick said. 

His mother ended up staying in Lexington for six months. 

The weeks that followed his diagnosis were some of the worst of Kirkpatrick’s life. He stayed in the hospital until just before Thanksgiving. 

“It was terrible. I don’t even remember most of it. I don’t know if it was trauma blocking it out,” Kirkpatrick said. “I was already feeling pretty terrible just from the side effects, but then they start you on such an intense regimen of chemotherapy. I was throwing up all the time and stopped eating. I went from 185 to 160 in four weeks. I was in bed almost the entire time.”

This was the beginning of a long battle with cancer for Kirkpatrick. He moved into an apartment close to the hospital with his mom and stopped attending classes until spring 2021, which put him behind those his age by a full year.

The treatment turned Kirkpatrick into what he said felt like a shell of his former self. His nausea medication caused weight gain and facial swelling and the chemotherapy caused him to lose his hair.

“I didn’t feel like myself at all and that was extremely difficult for me to handle,” Kirkpatrick said. “I didn’t want to see my friends either, just cause like some people probably wouldn’t have recognized me if they saw me.”

Another reason Kirkpatrick couldn’t see his friends was COVID-19. He was in the most vulnerable category of immunocompromised people when COVID peaked, meaning he went months without seeing anyone other than doctors and his parents. 

“You get to college, you’re trying to make new friends and I only had like a few months to establish connections. To be isolated for like a year and a half makes it difficult,” Kirkpatrick said.

Still, he chose to see the good in life as much as he could. He said he always had full faith in his oncologists and that playing video games online with his friends from home got him through the worst of it.

“When COVID hit (my friends) were all out of school or out of their jobs, so secretly it was kind of a blessing to me because they had time to play (video games) with me,” Kirkpatrick said. “That was a support system in a way.”

Kirkpatrick returned to school in spring 2021. That summer, he finally started feeling like himself again after spending time riding his bike, working out and trying to recover his soccer skills. 

In the fall of that year, he played for and was treasurer of the mens club soccer team. 

“It was special because there was a time when I thought I would never play again, just because of how much being in the hospital just led to muscle deterioration,” Kirkpatrick said. “I could barely walk up the stairs at a time. And that was really special just to be able to play at all.”

As of March 17, 2022, after 865 long days of fighting, Kirkpatrick is finished with cancer treatment. 

Kirkpatrick is now president of the mens club soccer team. He is set to graduate in 2024 and wants to use his chemical engineering degree to go into pharmaceuticals because of his experience with cancer. He said he is focused on moving on with his life.

“It’s not something I tell people. I want it to be a fun fact later. I’d rather it not be the forefront thing about me,” Kirkpatrick said.

He said one of the hardest parts of the journey was missing out on experiences most 18-20 year-olds have, but that he is now making up for lost time. 

“It’s definitely made me make the most of the past year, and the past year has been one of the best years of my life, undoubtedly,” Kirkpatrick said. “Every chance I get, I’m trying to play as many intramurals as I can, I’m trying to hang out with my friends every weekend, I’m trying to go to games. I try to live life to the fullest and get the most out of every day.”