The first clue slipped in subtly during Super Bowl weekend 2013.
Eric Westra tried to catch Roxy, the family’s chocolate lab, as she jumped from the car.
“Eric tried to catch her because it was snowy on the ground and he didn’t want her feet getting muddy and dirty,” said Eric’s wife, Chelsea. “She knocked him in the arm. It hurt way more than it should have. That was kind of how it all started.”
The Grand Rapids, Michigan, couple, who had appeared on HGTV’s “House Hunters” less than a year prior, continued with their plans that day—they headed to South Haven to watch the Super Bowl with friends.
“His arm hurt really bad, but he didn’t think anything of it,” Chelsea said. “He thought he tore a muscle or bruised a bone. We went and had a great weekend.”
A couple of months later, Eric went in for his annual physical. Chelsea told him to have the doctor check his arm, too, which still sported a strange bump.
The doctor ordered physical therapy, thinking Eric had pulled a muscle.
“PT wasn’t helping,” Chelsea said. “That’s when they scheduled an X-ray. Eric texted me and said, ‘They think Roxy broke my arm.’ Within a few days, maybe it was the same day, a radiologist called, asking him to come in for more testing.”
Eric underwent an MRI and CT scans.
Matthew Steensma, MD, a Spectrum Health orthopedic oncologist, then ordered a biopsy.
Eric and Chelsea’s world went numb.
In May of 2013, Dr. Steensma diagnosed him as having osteosarcoma—a rare bone cancer with only 800 to 900 cases diagnosed in the United States each year.
“At that point, he didn’t have any other tumors anywhere else,” Chelsea said. “It was just in his left humerus.”
Over the next year, Eric underwent chemotherapy, followed by surgery—doctors removed a significant portion of his humerus, put in a metal rod and bone from his leg—then more chemotherapy.
Eric, a civil engineer, was off work the whole time.
“That was a very intense surgery,” Chelsea said. “He loved his work so that was hard for him.”
In May 2014, Eric received a “cancer free” diagnosis.
A year later, more good news: “We found out we were pregnant,” Chelsea said.
But heartache lingered. During her pregnancy, a scan revealed spots in Eric’s lungs.
“Oddly enough, if osteosarcoma returns, it metastasizes in the lungs,” Chelsea said.
In September 2015, a week after their son, Arie, entered the world, Eric underwent surgery to have tumors removed from one lung. A month later, doctors removed tumors from his other lung.
A full-body scan four months later produced heartbreaking images.
“He, unfortunately, was one of the patients that had more than just lung metastasis,” Chelsea said. “He had tumors throughout his body, from his shin, to his skull, to his back. It was just everywhere. He was given a six- to 12-month life expectancy.”
An unimaginable reality to swallow. A father to a 4-month-old son, with six to 12 months to live.
But the reality became even worse. Eric started having abdominal pain. The tumors had moved into his soft tissues, slicing his life expectancy to three to six months.
“It took me a long time to wrap my head around, ‘We’re not going to get the miracle we were hoping for,’” Chelsea said. “Eric accepted it much faster than I did. He said, ‘I’m for sure going to die, so let’s talk about this.’ The worse he got, the more intense his care was and the more acutely aware I was that he didn’t have much time left.”
Because of the abdominal tumors, Eric had trouble eating and digesting. He retained fluid and couldn’t escape the nausea. He vomited constantly and battled hallucinations.
“He was in such agony,” Chelsea said. “He was dying in front of my eyes. He went downhill fairly consistently each day. We decided to take him off palliative care and put him in hospice care. The hospice nurse came on Monday morning. I asked, ‘How long do you think he has?’ She said maybe two weeks.”
On May 23, 2016, after holding his 8-month-old son’s hand, Eric took his last breath, surrounded by family and friends.
But Eric’s story doesn’t end there. Neither does Chelsea’s.
“During his first biopsy, Dr. Steensma gave us paperwork about the VanAndel Institute, asking if a portion of Eric’s tumor could go to the VanAndel Institute,” Chelsea said. “We signed the form and didn’t think anything more about it. After Eric passed away, I wanted to be involved in fundraising for research—osteosarcoma is a rare cancer that doesn’t get a lot of funding.”
After Eric’s death, Chelsea met with Dr. Steensma, who is also a research scientist at the VanAndel Institute.
“He told us what Eric’s tumor had been involved in and what research had been done.”
In June 13, 2018, on what would have been Eric’s 32nd birthday, Chelsea attended a volunteer appreciation event at the institute.
“I celebrated Eric’s birthday with the only part of him that’s left here,” she said.
Dr. Steensma said Eric’s tissue is being used to continue the fight against osteosarcoma.
“Eric’s tumor donation led to the identification of new drug targets for advanced stage osteosarcoma,” Dr. Steensma said. “Historically, metastatic osteosarcoma does not respond to chemotherapy so finding tumor susceptibilities is a significant advance.”
Dr. Steensma said over the last 40 years, few, if any treatment advances have occurred in metastatic osteosarcoma, whereas other cancers have witnessed significant improvements in survival for late-stage disease.
“Finding a candidate for drug targeting represents the critical first step in bringing new treatments into clinical trials,” Dr. Steensma said.
Chelsea finds some measure of comfort in helping to keep Eric’s memory alive through this research and her awareness efforts.
“This is an awesome way we can still be involved and feel like we’re carrying on Eric’s legacy,” she said.