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Keeping Pace with Diane

Diane Punch receives life-saving cardio-oncology care from The University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City

Diane Punch was saved by cardio-oncology care at The University of Kansas Health SystemTo look at Diane Punch, who's always on the go with a breezy attitude and a jam-packed schedule, you wouldn't guess she's survived medical conditions that twice nearly claimed her life.

In an arduous medical journey spanning fewer than 15 years, she's lived through:

  • The birth of a son so critically ill he wasn't expected to survive 1 hour
  • Stage III non-Hodgkin lymphoma with a grapefruit-sized chest tumor
  • Intensive chemotherapies and extensive radiation therapy
  • A stem cell transplant with high-dose chemotherapy
  • A serious allergic reaction to transplant-related medications
  • A mild stroke with some vision loss
  • Severe, undetected heart damage that became life-threatening
  • Surgery to implant a specialized pacemaker

"When I had advanced-stage cancer in 2002, doctors told my husband to make sure my will was in order," Punch says.

Treating cancer hurts the heart

A series of aggressive cancer treatments ultimately saved her life. Cancer-free since 2003, Punch appeared to be in perfect health for years – the ideal survivor of an advanced-stage cancer.

Then one day in 2012, she reached up for something in a bedroom closet and a split second later, the world no longer quite made sense. Suspecting a stroke, her husband, Doug, rushed her to the nearest emergency room where she was misdiagnosed with a migraine and anxiety and sent home with ibuprofen.

She appealed to her primary care doctor, who prescribed anti-anxiety drugs.

Enormously frustrated, dizzy and still without full vision, Punch sought answers at The University of Kansas Health System. Scans confirmed a stroke with no apparent cause. Not satisfied, neurologists referred her to cardiologist Ryan Ferrell, MD.

Subsequent test results were shocking. Punch's heart was barely functioning.

"Her heart muscle was severely weakened. Her ejection fraction, an estimate of how well the heart pumps blood, was less than 10%," Dr. Ferrell says. "Normal ejection fractions range from 55-65% in most people. Less than 30% is considered severely impaired. As a result, a blood clot formed in her heart, causing the stroke."

Punch was in disbelief. "Before my stem cell transplant in 2003, I'd had pretty extensive heart tests and was good to go."

Most likely, Punch had developed severe heart damage as a residual effect of the lifesaving cancer treatments she received a decade before.

"So much less was known back then about the extent to which some commonly used cancer therapies are toxic to the heart," Dr. Ferrell says.

The field of cardio-oncology barely existed in 2002. But today, The University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City offers a cardio-oncology program to improve heart outcomes for patients undergoing certain types of cancer treatments.

Getting her life back

Since 2013, Punch's once dire heart condition has been successfully managed with a three-lead pacemaker to regulate the rhythm of both sides of her heart, as well as a regimen of heart medications and close monitoring by her cardiology team.

"Dr. Ferrell is fantastic," she says, "and we've been so impressed with the whole cardiology group. They're attuned to my other health issues, move very quickly and are on the front end of the newest medications."

Ever an overachiever, Punch leads what she calls "a completely normal life." To her, this means a full-time job for a technology firm, weeknight piano lessons for her 9 students, 7-10 hours each weekend on-staff in a children's ministry and being a wife and mother of 3.

Survivorship apparently runs in the Punch family. That medically fragile infant? He's a strapping 13-year-old football player and cellist.