Cancer survivor Jack Beckman: 'Drag racing gives me joy'


Jack Beckman slips into a hospital?s cancer ward quietly. No cameras. He feels that would be ?embarrassing.? No sportscasters. No media announcements. He didn?t beat lymphoma so he could become a media darling. He gets enough attention as it is being an NHRA drag racer. He goes there because people stricken want to see someone who came out the other side.

?The kids, the ones about 8 and under, they think mom and dad still will take care of them, so I keep it light,? Beckman said. ?The adults, they know what?s up. You can be real and direct with them. It?s the group from 12-20, that?s the tough group. If it?s a teenager, I ask for mom and dad to leave the room so I can talk with the teenager alone.?

How real does it get? Depends on the teenager. Beckman might mention those three nights in which he went to bed in so much pain and depression he thought he would never see the morning. Beckman might say drag racing keeps his mind off cancer, since going 300 miles an hour in less than four seconds ?is G-force therapy.? Or Beckman might judge it?s time for a giggle, that when he was in the middle of chemotherapy, he had to fly wearing a dust mask to prevent his weakened system from being compromised by even a common cold, ?and I got early boarding, too.?

However Beckman plays it, he can play it from all the angles because he has seen all the angles, gone through all the angles and, now, in his fifth year of remission, is here to talk about it. Beckman once may have gone 333.66 mph in his Funny Car but he?ll never go as fast as the cancer story that always precedes him.

Beckman, who is a drag racing instructor in Southern California, said he once asked his students ?If John Force knew there was a 50-50 chance he would wreck on the next run, would he run? My students said, ?Oh, yeah. He?s a drag racer. He?s gotta run.? I responded, ?If he would say that, he would be an idiot. There?s a 1-in-3,000 chance something will happen on a run. That?s a tolerable rate of risk. But 50-50? Come on??

How about a 40-60 chance to live? That?s the odds quoted to Beckman in 2004, when he was diagnosed with high grade 3B lymphoma. For the previous nine months Beckman had never gone more than a week without feeling run down, worn out. He thought he was just battling a pesky cold. But when the CAT scan came back, it revealed about six pounds of tumors on the left side of his body, from his neck to his abdomen down to his pelvis, Beckman didn?t have the wherewithal to be stunned.

?I was in so much pain,? he said, ?the doctors could have told me they needed to amputate my leg and I wouldn?t have cared.?

Eight chemotherapy sessions ? the first couple of sessions ?felt like there were termites inside me? ? eradicated the disease. Many cancer survivors tell stories on how they found religion, a new meaning in life or a renewed appreciation for summer flowers. Beckman, 43, offered no such epiphanies.

?I am the same person I was before,? he said, ?with 10 percent less energy. Somber? Yes, I think that?s a good word for it. I?m a little bit somber about it. I don?t have the same edge I had before.?

But Beckman knows it?s important to point forward, not spin your tires. That?s why he buys green bananas because they need time to ripen. When Beckman renews his car insurance, he has the option to check the three-month, six-month or one-year box. He always checks the one-year box.

He feels he?s loving life rather than taunting death or being oblivious to it.

?I love surfing,? Beckman said, ?but if I see a great white shark in the water, I?m not going in the water. I may never go in the water there. But anyone who has cancer or who has survived cancer should continue to do what they find gives them joy. And drag racing gives me my joy.?

And a platform, too. At every race track Beckman gets visitors who have cancer or have survived it. They may be scared. They may not know what to do next. They may just want to hear a voice that doesn?t shake but is calm, reasoned, aware. Mostly, they don?t want to hear any shuck and jive because cancer contains none of that.

?Naivet?is a wonderful thing to have and I wish I could say that I have it,? Beckman said. ?But I don?t. I feel like there?s a big shadow following me wherever I go. I don?t like that feeling of mortality. I wish I could be dumb about it like I was before. But I can?t. I don?t think anyone who has survived cancer can say that. I don?t think there ever will be a time in my life in which it won?t be in the back of my mind.

?Feeling rundown is a cold for everybody else. But for me, I wonder.?

On June 25, at a NHRA event in Norwalk, Conn., Beckman felt rundown. Stayed that way through the Denver race on July 12. Started to worry. Was tested. Beckman had pneumonia and began antibiotics. He finished the story with a sigh and a smile on his face.

That?s when it hit me how devastating cancer can be.

It was the first time I ever heard someone was relieved to have pneumonia.

For more on North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky?s blog at You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@press

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