Pulling through: Tenacity and a new treatment help Wichitian survive cancer

By Joe Stumpe | August 1, 2022

Photo by Fernando Salazar Bill and Carrie Van Sickle ply the Little Arkansas River in their kayak last month.

More mornings than not, Bill and Carrie Van Sickle can be found gliding along the Little Arkansas River in one or two kayaks, enjoying the exercise and scenery. They usually cover between four and seven miles, their oars and sleek craft barely rippling the mirror-like surface.

“This river is basically a hidden gem,” Carrie said. “We see a beaver once a day, see the geese grow up.”

“This is what I consider a perfect sculling river for small boats,” Bill said.

But the excursions are more than a great start to the day: Bill Van Sickle believes they helped keep him alive.

Diagnosed with fast-spreading, stage 4 skin cancer four years ago, Van Sickle lost 60 pounds and saw his strength ebb away due to the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

“It was looking pretty dark there,” he said.

He never really gave up hope, but at one point he consciously went a step further and decided he also wouldn’t give up the things he loves while battling the disease.

“Cancer is one of those things that make you stop and think about what you want to do in life,” he said. “It just took determination to get up and get going.”

‘Progressing faster’

The Van Sickles have been regulars on the river since the 1980s. Carrie, then working as a program director for the YMCA, discovered rowing first. Bill, an engineer, had been into cycling, running and triathlons. But when two cycling friends got killed in an accident at Lake Afton, he took Carrie’s suggestion to start rowing. By then, not coincidentally, the couple were married with a 6-month-old son.

“I still wanted that kind of exercise,” Bill said. “Rowing meets all the physical demands. It’s a leg sport, it’s a core sport.” 

Both Carrie and Bill took to the technical aspects of the sport, learning to coordinate the movement of oars with the thrust of their legs. “Once you master that, you’re able to row more effectively and faster, which makes it more fun,” Bill said.

The Van Sickles competed in doubles and singles races and were active in the Wichita Rowing Association. Bill also volunteered as a coach for Wichita State University’s rowing club. 

Bill had several small growths on his skin removed through the years, including one that was cancerous. An examination at that time indicated the cancer had not spread.

Then one day in 2018, Van Sickle felt dizzy while coaching the WSU rowers. Around the same time, he noticed swelling in his neck and chest that obscured his collarbone. 

Tests confirmed that he had squamos cell carcinoma. Squamos is one of the three most common forms of skin cancer, more severe than basal cell carcinoma and less than melanoma. In Van Sickle, the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes, a part of the immune system.

Van Sickle underwent what has been the standard treatment for decades. But after three rounds of radiation and one of chemotherapy, he felt and looked worse than ever.

“It was progressing faster than they could treat it,” he said.

A new tack

Engineers search for answers to problems, and that’s what Van Sickle did. Some words from a rowing partner inspired him. “He said I was in charge of my own health. If I didn’t like what was happening, I needed to look further.”

Van Sickle learned of a relatively new form of cancer treatment called immunotherapy, being offered at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City. Immunotherapy uses the body’s own immune system to fight disease, with fewer side effects than radiation and chemotherapy.

Van Sickle told his oncologist he wanted to try it. His oncologist told him he’d be making a mistake and should give traditional treatment more time. The immunotherapy for Van Sickle’s type of cancer, using a drug called Libtayo, had only been approved by the Food and Drug Administration in fall 2018.

“But I went ahead and did it, and it turned out well,” Van Sickle said.

“Bill did a lot of research and understood his condition,” Carrie added. “He was a real advocate for himself.”
It wasn’t easy. Starting in 2020, he drove to Kansas City every three weeks. When the pandemic hit, he had to make two two-way trips for each treatment, one to get tested for COVID-19 at KUMC, since the medical center required the test to be conducted there. And yet it wasn’t a hard decision to keep going, he said. “I’m just tenacious.”

Keeping busy — and careful

Van Sickle kept active as well. Retired after 42 years in the aerospace industry, he went back to work on a part-time, contract basis. 

“That kept my mind busy” and allowed him to mentor younger colleagues, he said. He resumed coaching the WSU rowing club. 

“That kept me in contact with young people, too. It’s fun to hang out with young people. They have a different view of the world.”

Even at his weakest, he would row on an indoor machine, sometimes for as little as five minutes. As his strength returned, he returned to morning workouts with Carrie. “That helped me both mentally and physically.”

They remain involved in WRA events such as the Frostbite Regatta held every November, teaching beginning rowers and fundraising for the new WRA boathouse that opened last year in Riverside Park.

Van Sickle acknowledges that the thousands of hours he’s spent on the river may have contributed to his skin cancer. But he believes it’s really due to a lifetime spent outdoors, starting in an era when protecting one’s skin from the sun’s ultraviolent rays wasn’t emphasized. There was too much time spent cutting wheat while growing up in Hutchinson, attending football and track practices, cycling, running and swimming to pin the blame on any one activity.

These days, of course, he’s more careful, rowing in the early morning with his head covered by a hat and any exposed skin coated with heavy sun screen. 

Van Sickle, who gets a CT scan every three months, said those tests indicate he’s “probably cancer free at this point.” He was told he was the first person to complete the treatment at KUMC.

His ordeal isn’t over yet — he broke three ribs while rowing in a weakened condition — and he knows cancer can return. But he hopes anyone facing the disease takes heart from his experience.

“Don’t let it shut you down,” he said. “Keep living, talking to people. Stay involved.”

Contact Joe Stumpe at joe@theactivege.com.