U of L freshman determined to beat leukemia, despite six relapses in 13 years

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- A college freshman at the University of Louisville has had cancer almost all his life, but he's taking matters into his own hands and making moves to find a cure for kids everywhere. 

He wears sweats to class, jokes with friends, crams homework in the student center and eats, a lot. Everything about 18-year-old Patrick McSweeney says "ordinary college freshman."

But if you look deeper and learn his journey -- the journey of a life where hospitals are a second home -- McSweeney's life becomes anything but ordinary. "Extraordinary" would be a more descriptive word.

"My story begins July 21, 2004," McSweeney said. "I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia."

It's the most common and curable form of childhood cancer but for some reason it won't release McSweeney from its grip.  

"My fourth relapse was in 2015 and my fifth relapse was in 2016," he said. "The word for me at this point is 'annoying' -- and it's because I've heard those words, 'You've relapsed' so many times," he said. 

In fact, doctors have told him six times in 13 years that he's had a leukemia relapse. 

"All it takes is a few cells somehow to evade all these treatments and it comes back in a big way," explained Dr. Ashok B. Raj, of U of L Physicians, a specialist in Pediatric Hematology-Oncology.

The first diagnosis brought 38 months of chemotherapy, in his teen years McSweeney received a bone marrow transplant from his older brother, Joey,  then t-cell and immunotherapy but it always came back to the same "annoying" outcome, relapse.

"Fear and anxiety goes through your heart," said Mike McSweeney, Patrick McSweeney's dad. "At this stage in the game, with all the treatment Patrick has been through, you don't know if there are any other doors left to open."

Louisville first embraced McSweeney in 2015, when he was then a St. Xavier High School student suited up as a Bellarmine Knight in an exhibition basketball game against the Louisville Cardinals. 

"During the game, I air-balled the three, and then ended up missing the lay-up, and I was like, 'I am making a fool of myself in front of 20,000 people!'" McSweeney said.

The crowd shot to its feet as a kid with cancer fulfilled a dream.

"It was incredible," said Mike McSweeney, Patrick's dad, recalling the moment. "My heart was racing the whole time: the joy in watching him out there and the smile on his face." 

Mike says that day the determination and resolve his son displayed -- just to make a basket -- is the same determination and resolve that has kept him fighting cancer. 

"It was a very, very, special moment, that was pulled together by a special group of people for a special young man," Mike McSweeney said.

And then emotion takes over. 

"Because I thought it might have been the last big thing Patrick was able to do," Mike said with tears welling in his eyes. "I didn't know he was going to be able to continue to do big things."

But Patrick McSweeney is doing another big thing: raising money for RaiseRed, a year-long fundraising effort that raises money for kids with cancer and blood disorders in the Louisville area. He shared his lifelong cancer fight in a social media post and donations poured in.

"In two-and-a-half weeks, I was hoping to raise $5,000. In two-and-a-half-weeks. And in less than 24 hours, I'd raised over $10,000," he said.

But in the same fundraising video, he also shared some bad news: he's now battling blood cancer for the seventh time. Facing three weeks of t-cell therapy in Philadelphia, then a second bone marrow transplant in Cincinnati, he has decided to delay all of his treatment, just so he could participate in the culmination of RaiseRed: an 18-hour dance marathon at U of L. 

"I decided to email the doctor in Philly coordinating all this, and I said, 'Is there any way at all possible to push this back a week?'" Patrick McSweeney said.

McSweeney raised more than $20,000 so far. RaiseRed organizers hope to bring in $550,000 dollars this year. Every penny goes to pediatric cancer research and care in Louisville, to the same medical team who's been there for McSweeney time and time again. 

"Isn't that remarkable," said Dr. Raj. "That blows my mind...he's such a strong personality inside and out. I have not come across a patient with such endurance and strength as Patrick."

The dance-a-thon takes place Feb. 23 in the east gym in the U of L student center. 

"To the other patients, I know what they've been through," Patrick McSweeney said. "My goal is to raise a bunch of money to prevent that from happening...hopefully in the future there will be a cure for cancer."

He will go into the dance knowing what he faces when he's finished -- but everyone around him is hopeful that this is the last time, and that he's moving toward a cure.

"I'm still going to look uncoordinated and silly for 18 hours, but it's going to be fun," Patrick McSweeney laughed.

To donate to Patrick McSweeney, CLICK HERE.

Copyright 2018 by WDRB News. All rights reserved.