Dan Puckhaber was only 28 years old in 2009 when a routine checkup revealed that he had multiple myeloma. The diagnosis came out of the blue: Dan was a former college athlete. He worked out on a regular basis and felt great. And he didn’t fit the profile — most multiple myeloma patients are 65 or older at the time of diagnosis.
But youth and strength worked to his advantage when he prepared for a blood stem cell transplant at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. “You’re going to be treated very aggressively, because of your age and the shape you’re in,” Philip McCarthy, MD, Director of the Blood and Marrow Transplant Center, told him.
“OK,” Dan said. “Let’s go.” That no-nonsense approach is typical of Dan’s approach to life.
“There are only two things you can control — your pace and your attitude,” he explains. “I knew what the goal was. I knew the treatment I had to do.”
The plan called for four months of chemotherapy followed by a “tandem transplant” — first autologous, using his own blood stem cells (“to make the cancer as small and weak as possible before the allo”), then allogeneic, using a donor’s blood stem cells. Dan’s donor — his brother, Mike — was a perfect match.
Dan underwent the autologous transplant September 1, followed by three weeks in the hospital. The allogeneic transplant took place the day after Thanksgiving, followed by several more weeks as an inpatient. Although he experienced a couple of setbacks, winding up in the hospital again due to possible graft-versus-host-disease (GVHD) and then an infection, “once I got out that third time, I was out for good.”
Like many cancer survivors, Dan took stock of his life at the end of treatment and decided to pursue a lifelong goal that previously had slid to the back burner. “When I graduated from college, I wanted to be a football coach. That’s what I’m passionate about,” he says. “Life and bills intervened, and instead of doing what I wanted, I did what I had to do.” He worked as a pharmaceutical representative while paying off his student loans. Then, when his blood cell counts were high enough for him to return to work, an opportunity arose for an entry-level position as an offensive line coach at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York.
Three years later, he’s the full-time offensive coordinator / offensive line coach for the St. Lawrence Saints, who ended the 2013 season with a 7-3 record — “the first time we have had seven wins here at St. Lawrence since 1982,” Dan wrote recently to Dr. McCarthy,
“I would not be here if it were not for Roswell Park and your team.”