Arrow-right Camera
Subscribe now

Women of the Year: Becky Van Keulen builds on legacy she co-founded with late husband for Cancer Can’t

Cancer Can’t co-founder, board president and head of its lodging project committee, Becky Van Keulen, is photographed Monday near Kendall Yards and the site for its planned lodging facility in Spokane.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

Becky Van Keulen has worked nearly a decade to expand the reach of Cancer Can’t, a cause she credits to her late husband, Jonathan.

As he fought a form of bone cancer in 2014, the couple realized the region lacked resources dedicated to adult oncology, so they cofounded the nonprofit.

Cancer Can’t launched into a remodel of the oncology floor at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center to make the hospital rooms more comfortable. The couple saw that need, “because we were living in the hospital so much,” said Van Keulen, 38.

“We helped add sleeper sofas or chairs, so a support person could stay in the hospital with the cancer patient if they needed to. We remodeled in terms of paint, artwork and worked with the foundation to get new beds for patients. We put mini-refrigerators in the rooms.

“It’s just grown from there.”

After Jonathan died in 2016, Van Keulen could have quit. Their two sons were young. But she pressed on.

Jenny Servine, who received Cancer Can’t support, describes Van Keulen as a strong woman who works hard to help anyone who calls.

“Not only has she continued to expand services, but this year she has gotten federal funding and charitable donations to begin building housing for out-of-town cancer patients,” said Servine, who also credits Van Keulen as “a wealth of knowledge and true support for anyone entering the scary world of cancer.”

Married at 19, the Van Keulens were high school sweethearts in Ephrata, Washington. She got a scholarship to Washington State University in Pullman. Spokane became their home by 2005, as she finished a WSU interior design degree program that then was based near downtown.

Jonathan finished a business degree at Eastern Washington University, then had success with a partner in high-end mortgage lending until his diagnosis.

Van Keulen did design work for Camden Homes in Spokane Valley but left to care for their sons: Jax, now 13, and Jude, 11. Family remains a priority, but Van Keulen felt drawn to Cancer Can’t goals.

“I think when you experience deep loss like that, especially at a very young age, most people often ask why – I know I did – like, what’s the point of this, why am I now a widow with a 4- and 5-year-old at 30 years old?” she said.

“What it would have meant to me to have someone come alongside us. It’s just to do anything to make essentially what is a horrifying experience any easier for anyone else. It gave that loss some level of purpose.”

A medication that didn’t work for Jonathan cost roughly $30,000, so the couple tried to donate it back to his pharmacist. Requirements then blocked its reuse. She then was instrumental working with the state Legislature on language to pass a 2016 law for a medication repository, so people could donate medications for cancer and various needs, including for cardiac and diabetes treatment.

She helped create a separate nonprofit, the Charitable Pharmacy, for medication donations.

Now Cancer Can’t board president, Van Keulen acts in an unpaid executive director capacity. She wants more donations to go to its services.

Cancer Can’t runs a program to transport people for treatments, more recently partnering with Spokane Transit Authority and SNAP. Its transportation service has about 85 volunteer drivers and has expanded into Post Falls, Coeur d’Alene and Hayden. In some months, the service can reach 500 rides per month, she said.

A grant through STA helps fund Cancer Can’t staff to run the ride program, she said.

“Cancer is considered a disability. Often patients cannot drive, and they’re immune-compromised, so public transportation isn’t an option.”

The nonprofit has a grant program to help cancer patients facing costly medical bills with emergency needs such as covering rent, child care or a phone service. Its Cancer Can’t Take Christmas offers gifts to impacted families.

When a Spokane American Cancer Society office closed in 2020, Cancer Can’t agreed to take over its lodging program that partners with hotels to provide a place to stay for patients traveling for treatments.

Van Keulen’s latest project is a capital campaign for the nonprofit to build a 20-unit lodging facility near Kendall Yards, with a goal to open in 2025.

“We are attempting a unique business model to where we are going to have some of the units be long-term or corporate rentals that will produce revenue to pay for short-term units, so that cancer patients can stay there cost-free,” Van Keulen said.

Van Keulen said faith is “huge” in how her family coped. Her hobbies include playing tennis, and she’s a volunteer basketball coach for her youngest son. Her boys are in a church youth group.

With her life partner, Justin Stottlemyre, they go with her sons and his two children to do hiking, biking, boating, surfing and motorcycle riding.

For Cancer Can’t, Van Keulen plays another quieter role. She answers the phone often, as referrals send new cancer patients or family members her way.

“I do everything I possibly can to help anyone who calls me, because it’s a terrifying time when you get a cancer diagnosis.

“I’ve sometimes had hard conversations with friends, family or people I’ve met through this. That is something, again, that really gives this purpose. I didn’t have anyone to ask.”