Entering the Season of Advent, we find ourselves in a time of “hopeful waiting.” Most folks – small and tall, young and old – are waiting for Christmas, for the beginning of another Church year, for the gifts this year will bring.
Dan Whelan, a Southwest Airlines pilot who belongs to Immaculate Conception Parish in Columbia, said God has already given him a gift, one that he would like to give back after carrying it and sharing it with his family and friends and strangers as well.
“God gave me the gift of cancer,” he says firmly and sincerely.
Everyone knows someone who has suffered with, or perhaps recovered from cancer, a mean disease that many people research and try to cure, year after year.
Dan discovered the cancer in 2007 when something just wasn’t right. A visit to the doctor and tests evolved into surgery for testicular or a Leydig cell tumor that was benign.
In six weeks, Dan returned to the job he loved: flying. Then in 2011, fatigue and inability to train for another marathon sent him back to the doctor. This time they found a spot on his liver that turned into a significant surgery. May 27, 2011, doctors removed an 8 lb. 2 oz. tumor and 60 percent of his liver during a 10-hour surgery.
What had been benign had now become cancerous and had metastasized.
“I’m the only one currently alive” with this diagnosis, he said.
Since 2011, three more surgeries have been performed to remove tumors.
In October 2014 he ended four rounds of chemotherapy with one week on and two weeks off.
He lost his hair, but he ate and exercised. He gained weight, he said. “I felt terrible, but it goes back to a will to live and not let cancer rule my life,” he said.
Dan comes from a family of 12 brothers and sisters, and his brothers live all over the country. When he felt like quitting, he texted his brothers, and they encouraged him not to quit.
His immediate family – wife, Laura; and children Catie and her husband, Phil; Nick; Mary Margaret; and Jane see him on both his good and bad days.
Oct. 31, 2014 was an especially bad day. “The chemotherapy ended, and I got the news that the chemo did nothing. In fact, a couple of the tumors grew,” he said.
He and Laura listened to the doctor tell him to get his affairs in order. He has terminal cancer.
It stunned them. They took time to cry but not to give up.
“There’s a cure out there somewhere; I just don’t know where it is,” he said.
And so Dan and his family began the journey they continue today, with the help of friends and of course the very helpful trauma insurance from a company similar to Curo Financial to pay for medical costs.
While he was getting chemotherapy he read about a diet for cancer sufferers.
“I became a vegan overnight,” he said.
He receives no treatment now, and over time he has consulted cancer specialists, but right now, he only sees his regular doctor and follows the diet.
“Through all of this my prayer life has gotten stronger and stronger and stronger,” he said.
He prays the Suscipe written by St. Ignatius Loyola:
“Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
“You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it
“Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.”
So, Dan says, “I’ve given cancer back to God.”
And, he and his family have not stopped living. Laura, physical education teacher at Immaculate Conception School (ICS), coordinates youth ministry in the parish, and for a number of years has taken youth to Cairo to work with Daystar, the diocesan outreach program in the area.
Dan continues to accompany the group and cooks the meals for the youth and adult volunteers.
This last time, he spoke to the youth about prayer, and they listened.
“Sometimes my prayer is just simple: ‘Let the Holy Spirit speak through me.’ I told the kids that God wants to hear your wishes from you; God wants you to admit what you need,” he said.
He told them he had asked God to “relieve me of this. It’s a terrible, ugly disease, but prayer allows me to be positive. I don’t think God wants us to lay on the couch and die.”
“They both are very positive about life, and find great hope and strength in their Catholic faith,” their pastor, Msgr. Carl Scherrer said. “It was the great St. Benedict, father of Western Monasticism, who instructed his monks to keep ‘death before you daily,’ and this is what Laura and Dan do, not by focusing upon dying, but rather by focusing upon living.”
Continuing his pro-active approach to life, this year, Dan rode 75 miles in a fund-raising event in St. Louis for cancer research called Pedal the Cause, held in September.
With great support from his immediate and extended family, he rode, saying the first 60 miles were fairly easy. His 23-year-old son, Nick, rode at his side with his brothers riding too.
Laura and other family members rode in cars alongside him, encouraging him, lifting him up when he might have given up.
Through the many ups and downs, Laura has accompanied Dan. He describes her as his “high school sweetheart.”
Laura says her faith has become stronger. “We’re just living,” she said. “Lots of people do that; we’re not dying with cancer.”
She encourages anyone who knows someone who is ill to call or send a card or “let them know you’re thinking of them.” It means a lot.
Jane, an eighth-grader at ICS has been living with her father’s cancer since the end of third grade. She said she will take Peregrine as her confirmation name this year.
“I thought it was a great way to connect with my dad again,” Jane said.
Each day he opens his eyes, he prays: “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad.”
Dan and his family live their lives in hope, always looking forward to what God has in store for them.
“Before I hit the ground, I thank God for yesterday and hope I don’t screw up today,” he said.
As each day unfolds, Dan and Laura say they see God working in and around them.
“Sometimes we’ll go for weeks and everything is good,” Laura says, and “then something kicks you in the knees.”
When she’s experiencing a particularly difficult day, “the little kids will give you a hug.”
Dan met and spoke with a stranger and told her to “have a good day.” The lady replied: “It is a great day because you’re in it.”
God lifts them all up in the details of everyday life. Dan says he is not afraid of death: “Dying is the day we all live for,” he said. But he thinks about his wife, his children, his family and how they will go forward.
Tears still come, sometimes when they least expect them, but they are not tears of despair.
They will continue to share the story of cancer as “gift,” knowing that if they can touch one life, ease the pain of one person, it is enough.
The newest scans don’t bode well for the family. They anticipate more surgery in coming weeks.
“They are the ones doing the ministering to me and many others,” Msgr. Scherrer said, “as they view through the eyes of faith their present circumstances as an opportunity for growth and evangelization rather than a burden to be borne. We are their companions on the journey, and pray that they will continue to find in their family of faith strength and support.”