October 25, 2019

‘I have found my God’: Mother of three lives her legacy of faith while facing devastating, rare cancer

Dr. Beth Wehlage of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis has relied upon the Sacred Heart of Jesus during her journey of suffering and faith while dealing with cancer. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Dr. Beth Wehlage of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis has relied upon the Sacred Heart of Jesus during her journey of suffering and faith while dealing with cancer. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

During each radiation treatment for her stage 4 cancer, Dr. Beth Wehlage clutched a cross, a rosary that had been blessed at Lourdes, and a crucifix that was a gift from the Sisters of St. Benedict.

As she tried to stay motionless so the radiation could pinpoint the area behind her ear where the cancer had concentrated, the 58-year-old mother of three prayed the rosary, the seven sorrows of the Blessed Mother and the prayers of St. Bridget on the Passion of Christ.

She prayed for healing, for strength, for God’s will, all the time focusing on an image that had given her comfort during her previous treatments for this most devastating stage of cancer—the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Yet on this day, Wehlage experienced something that had never happened before, something that still touches and stuns her.

“I pray to Jesus in front of me, and I see his Sacred Heart,” she recalls. “I see his limitless love, his limitless mercy. I completely surrender, visualizing this image, this Sacred Heart of Jesus. And in an instant, in a moment, as I lie on this table, I feel him. He stands near, so very near.

“My radiation enters on my left. He stands on my right. He puts his hand on my shoulder. I feel Jesus and his Sacred Heart move—to be by my side.

“I have found my God. He is with me. Always.”

She pauses. Then this doctor who had a medical career that included helping mothers deliver their babies continues talking about this radiant moment in her life.

“No worker, no one, can be in the radiation room while anyone is having radiation,” explains Wehlage, a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. “When all is finished, they come in the room.

“I know. I know. Maybe there are some skeptics. Maybe I’ve even been a skeptic. This was not something I had ever envisioned, or even prayed for. But I felt him by my side.”

‘I am grateful for every blessing’

Eight years have passed since Wehlage experienced that moment. Eight years in which this grandmother has placed all her emphasis on making the most of her life and making the most of her faith—even as the cancer continues to be a concern.

“I’ll have scans forever,” she says about the efforts to track the rare, aggressive disease that is known as adenoid cystic cancer.

At the same time, she also has that continuing belief that God is with her always. It’s the theme of a presentation that she has shared on rare occasions, a talk that she calls, “The Mystery of Suffering and Faith—A Connection with God. What is Your Legacy of Faith?” And that experience with Christ in the radiation room is the emotional and spiritual heart of her presentation.

That experience has also led her to a deeper exploration of her faith.

She commits to a weekly hour of eucharistic adoration. She becomes part of a book club with fellow Catholic women and searches for movies that focus on faith. As part of her Lenten observance, she memorizes prayers, including the Sanctus in Latin. And she makes sure that every room in her family’s house “has a symbol of faith that is a testimony for our Lord.”

Wehlage also savors the extended gift of time that she has been given as a mother, a grandmother and a wife.

She has rejoiced at the wedding of her oldest daughter Molly to Dillon O’Neill.

She has beamed seeing her daughter Katie graduate from medical school.

She has glowed watching her youngest daughter Lucy “sing her heart out” as the lead in a high school musical.

In August, she celebrated her 30th wedding anniversary with her husband Martin.

She has felt the joy of holding their first grandchild—Molly and Dillon’s nearly 2-year-old daughter Maeve.

“I am grateful for every blessing,” says Wehlage, who has also experienced the thrill of climbing the Half Dome rock formation in Yosemite National Park in California. “I try to be and expect less perfection—and fill my soul with gratitude in God’s plan.”

It’s an attitude she has strived to keep, even during the time when another cancer scare intensely reminded her of her mortality.

Tears of fear and joy

“I have a possible recurrence in 2015,” she recalls. “A concern was seen on an MRI scan. Symptoms and discomforts are near my ear, my jaw and my eye that make my mind worry. Doctors, biopsies, waiting. Internet searches where I see scary photos of jaws removed, of head and neck deformities from my cancer.”

Fearful for a moment, she thought of her children and her desire to be there for them “in their futures, in their faith.” Then she returned to the foundation of her faith—“complete surrender” to God.

Waiting for the biopsy report, she received a blessing and the prayers of a missionary priest, Society of Our Lady of the Trinity Father James Blount.

“He asked about the men in my life,” she recalls. “I told him my father prays for me every day at daily Mass since my diagnosis, and my dear husband is faithful and devoted. Father Jim asks that Martin begin to pray over me that very day—to hold me in his arms at the end of the day and pray the Novena to St. Joseph. And my husband did this.

“My husband and I pray and cry together. Martin and I talk of eternal healing in heaven. We talk of complete gratitude for our faith.”

When the biopsy report came back, it showed there was no recurrence.

“My husband cries aloud in the hospital, ‘Thank you, St. Joseph!’ ” she says.

‘What is your legacy of faith?’

When she gives a presentation about her life, her struggles with cancer and the inspiration of her faith, Wehlage concludes it by asking the people in the audience to consider whether they have a legacy of faith in their family and how they nurture it—and even how they sustain it during times of suffering.

“There is so much mystery when we try to understand suffering,” she says. “Yet Christ carried his cross. [And] there are benefits in suffering. Simply, we come to Christ when we suffer. We all have a story. We all carry a cross.

“When you suffer and you share your cross and your suffering—your struggles—with others, you make a warm, loving embrace, a field of inspiration that extends far and wide—your legacy of faith.”

It’s a legacy she works to create through the way she lives her life, including how she deals with the reality of cancer. Her doctor has told her that the longer she lives, “the more likely this type of cancer will return.”

“I do pray for my complete healing, but my prayer has evolved,” she says. “I pray for the will of my God—to be his servant, for his Blessed Mother to be my intercessor.

“My family knows to turn to God with their gratitude and with their burdens. This is the legacy of faith.”

She continues to hope to “live a long life—a life of family joy, friends and memories.” She also has another great hope.

“Our daily life here on this Earth is a practice. A practice to live our holiest life, to get to heaven with our eternal healer. And I know that every step of the way, God is by my side.” †

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