Elizabeth Pratt is one of the good ones.

She performs self breast exams. And by complying with the recommendation, she may have saved her life.

“I noticed a lump on my breast from a self-exam while on a family vacation at Arbutus Lake in Traverse City,” the now 47-year-old said. “I went to my doctor, which happened to be on my birthday. I just had a feeling that it was going to be cancer.”

Her gut feeling proved correct. A visit to the Spectrum Health Cancer Center confirmed—Stage 3 cancer—an 8-centimeter tumor loomed on her right breast.

Breast cancer doesn’t run in the family for Elizabeth. Her diagnosis came as a shock, to both her and her family.

A family fight

But it wasn’t the only cancer diagnosis, nor the only shock. Just three years later, her son, Grant, who played running back and linebacker for his eighth-grade football team, grew tired.

“He had complained of a backache,” Elizabeth said. “We didn’t think much of it at first since he was playing football. Pretty normal for a 13-year-old who works out a lot. We thought he had mono, but nothing showed up on the mono test.”

God gives you challenges and sometimes you are completely blind-sided. You fight, pray and hold onto faith. You never relinquish your strength and determination to fight and live your life.

Elizabeth Pratt
Cancer survivor

Something did show up on further tests at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital—leukemia.

“It hit me very hard,” Pratt said.

A mother. A son. Cancer squared.

What’s a family to do?

They fight.

“We are a very optimistic, strong and determined family that believes in maintaining a positive attitude,” said Elizabeth, who is under the care of Jayne Paulson, MD, a Spectrum Health Medical Group breast surgeon with the cancer center. “I asked Dr. Paulson, ‘What do we do to beat this?’”

Dr. Paulson recommended a double mastectomy, which she performed.

Elizabeth started chemotherapy three months later, then joined a trial study.

Hitting the heart

But something wasn’t right. While receiving chemotherapy, the Spectrum Health Cardio-Oncology Clinic closely monitored her cardiac function. One of the echocardiograms revealed that her heart function had declined.

Another shock. There’s no history of heart trouble in her family.

“It was like, ‘Darn it, something else,'” Elizabeth said. “I took a deep breath and just thought to myself ‘OK, what do we need to do to get through this so we can move forward?'”

Wissam Abdallah, MD, a Spectrum Health Medical Group cardiologist, prescribed medications known to improve and protect the heart.

“Elizabeth had been receiving chemotherapy medications which have been associated with causing a decline in cardiac function,” Dr. Abdallah said.

The cardiac therapy she was started on—beta blockers and ACE inhibitors—worked.

“She was able to continue with her chemotherapy as planned. Repeat imaging has shown that her heart function improved and has been in the normal range since,” Dr. Abdallah said. “Early detection for potential damage to the heart by certain chemotherapy medications allows us to start therapy soon to prevent any further decline in heart function and, most of the time, be able to keep patients on their chemotherapy with close cardiac monitoring.”

There’s more good news. She’s reached the five-year cancer-free mark.

“I’m feeling really well and doing great,” Elizabeth said. “I don’t really have any limitations. I choose not to. Things are just different. I have issues with lymphedema and memory loss. I can deal with that. God gives you challenges and sometimes you are completely blind-sided. You fight, pray and hold onto faith. You never relinquish your strength and determination to fight and live your life. You use what you’ve gone through to help others.”

Fighting cancer, together

For starters, mother and son helped each other.

“We certainly can relate,” Elizabeth said. “He is a tough kid. You have no clue that he’s going through anything, but I know how the medicine makes you feel.”

Grant, a sophomore at Lowell High School, has been an inspiration to his mom. Just as she has, to him.

Grant told her: ‘Mom, I learned after watching you go through cancer what it takes to go through it. I’m just following in your footsteps.’

“I could have cried,” Elizabeth said. “That’s not something you want your son to have to experience, that’s for sure. But he’s amazing. So is my oldest son, Garrett, and my husband, Greg, who have been amazing as we all fought cancer as a family.”

This family is all about life, and learning. Greg is the superintendent at Lowell High School. Elizabeth is a high school math teacher at Reeths-Puffer in Muskegon.

But no algebraic equation can makes sense of this—why one mom plus one son equals two cancer diagnoses. It simply does not compute. And the unanswered questions seem to outweigh the answered ones.

“Grant will be going through treatments into his senior year,” Elizabeth said. “He takes chemotherapy pills every day and night, every day of the week.”

Every three to four weeks, he visits Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, and receives treatments, as well.

It’s tough, this business of cancer in the family, times two.

When you’re starting high school, you should be worried about the upcoming high school dance, or your next exam—not cancer ravaging your blood.

Grant said when he was diagnosed, “I didn’t really know what to think.”

Like the running backs that come barreling down on him when he plays linebacker for the Red Arrows, cancer posed a threat, a threat that could lay him flat, unless he fought back hard enough, with conviction and courage.

Like he does on the junior varsity football field, Grant strapped on his helmet, put his head down, and plowed ahead, trying to knock the enemy from his path. It’s a long fight.

“I was away from football for a while,” Grant said. “It’s fun to be able to get back out there. It reminds me of how lucky I am to be able to play. I was pretty limited last year.”

Grant said his mom sets a strong example, of how not to be limited by a cancer diagnosis.

“She’s always there for me at my appointments,” he said. “I like to think I can be of help to her when she’s going through rough times. I want to remind her just how much we love each other and that we’re always there for each other through rough times. This experience has definitely brought us closer together.”

And it’s helped both of them see life in whole new way.

“I like to think it can easily put things back into perspective,” Grant said. “It’s helped me persevere and, when I think something is bad, it can really put things in perspective. I know it could be a lot worse.”