Woman ministers to others while battling terminal cancer

As Elizabeth VanSickle pulls up her sleeve, tattooed on her right wrist is a pink breast cancer ribbon. Below that is one simple word: “Courage.”

The other forearm is adorned with a graceful, blue butterfly. Around her left wrist is a band of beautiful words: “Hope.” “Dreams.” “Believe.” “Live.”

“The butterfly is a reminder to me that there’ll be a life with no pain, no suffering,” said VanSickle, who will be 43 in November. “The ribbon is my badge of courage.”

HOW IT ALL STARTED

VanSickle, who started Sock Monkey Ministries in Houston, Texas, in 2005, was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2001.

Her mother died of breast cancer, so VanSickle was always vigilant about checking any abnormality. In 2001, in the midst of moving from Birmingham to Houston she found a lump, then another, and doctors told her they were likely cancerous. She had the lumps removed, but in December, another one formed in the same spot.

In May 2002, she had a double mastectomy, but the cancer had already spread from her breasts to her lymph nodes.

“I had my first chemo treatment in November 2002,” she said. “After six months of treatment, I took a break. They did tests, and then we found out it had spread into my bones.”

VanSickle’s cancer is different. Most breast cancers are hormone receptor positive, which means they’re triggered by hormones. To stop these cancers, women usually have mastectomies or hysterectomies to remove the hormone sources.

VanSickle’s cancer, however, is hormone receptor negative, which is not fueled by hormones. Although she had a hysterectomy as well as a double mastectomy, it did nothing to stop the disease from spreading.

Breast cancer research has come a long way, even in the few years since VanSickle was diagnosed. But that’s not far enough.

“Women are dying less of breast cancer than they used to. But the fact is, we’re still dying,” she said.

VanSickle’s cancer is terminal — she stopped the intravenous chemotherapy in August, and she takes morphine and oral chemotherapy for pain management.

And yet she’s living, not waiting to die.

To turn her pain into something good, VanSickle created Sock Monkey Ministries while bed-ridden in Houston. Her grandmother had made sock monkeys for her when she was small, and the monkeys always brought her comfort. She wanted to do the same for others.

The sock monkeys, with their colorful hair and button eyes, are given to children, soldiers and others in need.

“If I didn’t have cancer, we wouldn’t have sent out 10,000 sock monkeys,” she said. “I believe God has taken my cancer and made it something good.”

The family moved back to Birmingham at the end of 2005 and settled in the Chelsea area. They started attending Lakeview First United Methodist Church in Pelham, and that’s when the ministry picked up speed.

LEARNING TO LIVE AGAIN

VanSickle said it’s important to keep her sense of humor and be an example for her husband, Randy, and her two sons, Ryan, 19, and Wesley, 13.

“I don’t want them to focus on the time (left) because I think you get so worried about the time, you forget to live,” she said. “Something I want people to know about cancer is that you never stop living.”

Since learning her cancer would eventually kill her. VanSickle has lived like never before.

She has written a book, “Crossing Jordan: Living Faith through Cancer,” which tells her story through journal entries and letters. She’s gotten her tattoos. She’s ridden a motorcycle for the first time — in a police-led motorcade in her honor.

She’s kept her faith and made it even stronger.

“God didn’t give me cancer. God gives you the grace and strength when you need it,” VanSickle said. “And it’s a promise that the things I leave here will be a blessing for others.”

Sock Monkey Ministries will continue on. Sandy Englebert, one of VanSickle’s fellow church members at Lakeview, is now the organization’s president.

“My main goal is to just continue what Beth has been doing, to continue to make the monkeys and to keep it going,” Englebert said. “It’s been really hard. From the start, I knew she had cancer. I’ve been shocked at how fast it has progressed.”

VanSickle knows the cancer’s speed will rob her of time with her boys. She’ll miss graduations and weddings. She’ll never meet her grandchildren. But she doesn’t let that knowledge take away the joy she has right now.

“I’m not really sad for me to leave, but I’m sad for them. I’m not worried because I know their faith and I know they’ll be OK,” VanSickle said. “If I didn’t have cancer, my children wouldn’t appreciate life as much as they do.”

As hard as it is to believe, VanSickle sees cancer as a gift.

“Cancer has been a blessing to me, and I know that’s really weird for people to understand,” she said. “I look through God’s eyes, and I see his artistic masterpiece. If I didn’t have cancer and I didn’t know each day was precious, would I have appreciated it as much?”