The Rev. Jim Beals doesn’t blame God for his cancer. After all, he prayed for it.
He prayed many times during the last six years as pastor of Hood River’s Church of the Nazarene — and before that during a 9-year ministry in Grants Pass — that whatever it took to get the attention of others, whatever it took to turn people’s eyes to God, he was ready for it.
The answer to his prayers came last summer, in the form of liver cancer.
“You have to be careful what you pray for,” says Beals, 42, his face lighting up in a boyish grin that comes easily and often. He grins despite the cancer, which was stage IV by the time it was discovered last August. He grins despite the chemotherapy, which leaves him nauseous, exhausted and bedridden for days at a time. He grins despite the odds, which are 25-30 percent that he’ll live more than five years.
The Rev. Jim Beals grins for many reasons. He grins because of Becky, his wife of 20 years. He grins because of Sarah, Juliann and Dena, his three daughters, and Carmie, a teen who’s come to live with the Beals and has become part of the family. The lot of them he calls his harem. He and the family dog, Buddy, have to stick together, Jim says. This makes him grin, too.
But there is one reason above all others that causes Jim Beals to grin in the face of everything: his faith. It helps him to cope gracefully with the cancer that’s struck in the prime of his life, and it allows him to reach out to others at a time when many would pull inward.
“This has been an incredible time in our lives to watch our faith play out,” Beals says. “It’s drawn us deeper with the Lord and deeper with our family. Without this, we would not have had the opportunity to touch people’s lives in such a way.”
The Beals were on vacation in Hawaii last May when Jim was first bothered by stomach pain. Becky didn’t feel well either, and the couple figured it was something they ate. By the time they returned home, Becky felt fine. Jim did not.
Spring turned to summer, and Jim saw doctors and underwent lab tests that revealed nothing out of the ordinary. Then in August, a CAT scan showed a tumor on his liver. Doctors feared it had spread there from somewhere else, and a colonoscopy revealed that the cancer had started in Jim’s colon. They figured it had been working its insidious design for a couple of years.
Jim had stage IV liver cancer. It was as bad as it could be.
Jim told his congregation about the diagnosis during his sermon the very next Sunday. On Sept. 9, Jim underwent surgery to remove part of his colon. A month later he started chemotherapy.
Doctors hoped to shrink the size of the liver tumor before doing surgery to remove part of the organ. Little progress was made, so in February doctors altered Jim’s chemotherapy regimen to add daily oral medication along with the once-a-week I-V drug course.
After two rounds of the new regimen, Jim’s tumor had shrunk from 3 centimeters to 1½. He’s scheduled for surgery on May 22 to remove the right lobe of his liver, where the tumor sits.
Even if the surgery is successful, Jim faces the stark reality that comes with having advanced stage cancer. It may be gone. It may be gone temporarily. There’s only one chance in four that he’ll live beyond five years.
“He still has long odds,” says Becky. But his age and healthy lifestyle — Jim’s an avid racquetball player — might work in his favor.
Jim and Becky are optimistic, but realistic. Jim has made videotapes for each of his three daughters, to be given to them before they get married in case he’s not around. He also made one for Becky.
The girls know about the tapes. They know everything that’s going on with their dad because Jim and Becky talk openly about it with them.
“We’re not kidding ourselves that this isn’t serious,” Becky says. Each of the girls — Sarah, 17, attends Hood River Valley High School, Juliann, 14, attends Hood River Middle School, and Dena, 11, goes to Westside Elementary — handles their father’s illness in different ways, according to Becky. But openness, talking and listening are the household rules.
“From the beginning, we’ve never said that he’s going to be healed,” Becky says. “We’ve talked very freely about the ‘what if’s.’” She says the family has “become very comfortable with the scary part of it.”
“Jim’s faith and his peace have really pervaded our home,” she says. “It’s made a difficult situation easier to deal with.” They even joke about it.
“We call him chemo man,” Becky says, referring to bouts of forgetfulness brought on by the intense doses of chemotherapy drugs. “He has his chemo moments.”
“If I beat this, I’ll have to find another excuse for my absentmindedness,” he says. He even jokes with the chemo nurses at Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital. “I told them, as soon they don’t make me sick, I want to take them out to lunch.”
But along with the jokes come worry and uncertainty — especially from his parishioners at the Church of the Nazarene. On several occasions, church members have come to Jim and asked: why him?
“I tell them, why not me?” Jim says. “God’s going to take care of us. People who have true faith are able to see things from a whole different perspective.”
People come to Becky, too, asking Why.
“My response is, what makes you think that God has done me any disservice by allowing this to come our way?” she says. “We’ve not had a moment of anger toward God.” Still, Becky is occasionally overwhelmed by fear. She copes by praying, by writing in her journal and by sending e-mail updates to friends and acquaintances.
“I’ve shared the tough things, and I’ve shared the joyous things,” Becky says.
As for Jim, he says he feels a special bond with church members and others who have had cancer. One parishioner stopped by the hospital last week when Jim was undergoing his chemotherapy treatment.
But Jim feels this is his time to reach out to everyone, not just those who can particularly relate to what he’s going through.
“Scripture tells us that God’s power can really be used when we’re at our weakest,” he says. Jim says he “shed some tears” the first night after being diagnosed.
“But after that, I’ve had a peace about it that I attribute to God’s grace touching my life. God gives us what we need when we need it.” Jim says that “more doors” are opening to him now than ever before. Becky agrees.
“I feel like we’ve been able to minister through our suffering to others who are suffering,” she says. “That’s been a tremendous opportunity.”
Jim has continued to preach on Sunday mornings when he’s felt well enough. When he doesn’t, an assistant pastor takes the job.
The Beals say they’re grateful for the support they’ve received from their church and the entire community. Teachers and administrators at all the schools have been helpful in many ways, Becky says. And church members and others in the community have offered help and support — from taking up monetary collections to mowing the lawn.
“This community has really rallied around us in an incredible way,” Becky says.
Jim plans to preach the Easter Sunday service at the Church of the Nazarene this weekend. Then he’ll have another round of chemo before his surgery in May. Then, it’s wait and see.
In the meantime, he’ll continue ministering to others, reaching out to them through his ordeal. And he’ll continue to enjoy life’s sweet moments.
“I appreciate every day,” Jim says. “Sometimes it’s just the simple things.” He remembers walking from home to the church one evening recently to do some work in his office. He inhaled the evening air, then stopped and stood silently, looking up at the canopy of stars.
“I thought, ‘All this, and heaven too,’” Jim recalls. “I don’t want to die. But I’m ready to die. I have a peace about it.”