Ask an expert - Sara and Brendan Whelton

How has cancer changed holiday celebrations?

Like most things in Sara and Brendan Whelton's lives, Valentine's Day looked a little different this year.

"We never really celebrated Valentine's Day," said Sara Whelton, who just weeks after Valentine's Day 2021 began her battle with an aggressive form of breast cancer. The next months were spent in surgeries, chemo treatments and rounds of radiation. The next years, Whelton said, will be spent making new memories and enjoying new experiences, like the one provided Feb. 11 by Wellness House in Hinsdale.

Virtual Enchanted Evening offered couples the opportunity to spend time together as they prepared a romantic meal under the guidance of Chef Sarah Beth Tanner. Using kits provided by the Wellness House, the Wheltons constructed a charcuterie board and enjoyed their creation while listening to live music by Jeffrey Deutsch.

"He sang love songs and played the piano," Whelton said.

She said Brendan liked the music best of all, while she enjoyed the experience of being in the kitchen with her husband.

"That's not something we would normally do together," she said.

Both appreciated the chance to spend an evening as a couple, but without the need to find childcare for their three children, ages 10, 7 and 5.

"They're really what has kept me going," Whelton said.

She said her entire family has benefited from the services and programs offered at Wellness House. At Christmas time, her children enjoyed a ride on the Polar Express, and the whole family has used the facility's counseling services.

"Cancer isn't just physical. It's mental. It's emotional," Whelton said.

She and Brendan talk to their counselor, Nevada Bennett, about the challenges that cancer brought to both of their lives, individually and as a couple.

"It was like we both took on an extra job," Whelton said. Her new job was to fight cancer, while Brendan suddenly had to take care of the things that Sara had managed, including the house and kids.

Whelton also attends a monthly breast cancer support group at Wellness House. It gives her a chance to talk with other women with similar experiences, to ask questions and to compare notes about things like medication side effects, hair loss and the many feelings and changes that come with a cancer diagnosis.

Whelton's diagnosis came soon after she had received a clear mammogram. She noticed a swelling under her left arm, and while her doctor told her it was probably nothing to worry about, she knew something was wrong. In March 2021, she learned she was right.

"Know your body," Whelton said, and never ignore something that's out of the ordinary.

With her strength and her hair making a slow but certain return, Whelton said she looks forward to more Wellness House programs and events, and to finally spending time face to face with the people she's met over the last year.

Meanwhile, Whelton said she's taking every opportunity to make new memories with her husband and children; memories like the ones they made this Valentine's Day.

- by Sandy Illian Bosch