Bryson Byrnes looks like a typical 11-year-old boy who goes to school every day and lives for his weekends on the football field. But Bryson is not a typical child. Last year, his father, NASCAR on FOX’s Steve Byrnes, was diagnosed with and successfully treated for head-and-neck cancer.
Bryson is looking forward to Father’s Day this weekend more than ever and probably more than the average child ever will. Bryson knows he’s fortunate to share one more Sunday in June with Steve, but it doesn’t take a day on the calendar for him to appreciate his dad.
"He’s a fantastic, brave and Godly dad, especially for loving his kid and trying to take care of his child even through this tough time," Bryson said of Steve, who had a clean PET scan in early January. "I’m not 100-percent sure, but I think that really does define a dad — taking care of their children, no matter what they may be going through — whether it’s the child or the dad himself. I really appreciate him for still wanting me to be happy and being brave through all this."
Steve, a NASCAR on FOX pit reporter and NASCAR Race Hub co-host, wasn’t the only member of the Byrnes family to exhibit bravery upon his Aug. 7, 2013, diagnosis. After much debate over whether to tell Bryson about his health, Steve and his wife, Karen, sat their only child down to break the news to him a few weeks after the doctor delivered the news to them.
"I wasn’t really scared when they first told me, but I was pretty scared later on," Bryson recalled. "It was just hard seeing him go through that."
While Bryson worried about the physical battle his father faced, Steve and Karen, who lost her mother to cancer when she was only 14, focused on the emotional challenges ahead of their son during Steve’s course of 37 radiation and two chemotherapy treatments. Karen, a former public relations executive representing clients in NASCAR, drew on her experience in the garage area to formulate a plan to make Steve’s situation relatable for Bryson.
"I was very concerned about telling Bryson because my mother had cancer my entire childhood, and it was a very difficult childhood filled with fear, worry and uncertainty," Karen stated. "During my NASCAR career, one of my responsibilities was to show corporate executives around the pit and garage area.
"Being able to meet the driver and crew and see the car helped them understand how the sport worked. I took this idea to the social worker at Levine Cancer Institute and asked her if we could take Bryson on a ‘pit tour’ of the facility. She and the staff were very receptive. She talked to him about cancer, and then he toured the radiation facility and infusion room and met all the nurses and technicians.
"By the end of the experience, Bryson went from being nervous and emotional to asking questions and laughing. He could actually see and touch what was going to happen. It really gave him a more complete understanding, and therefore, more comfort and peace."
Bryson agrees he had a better grasp of his father’s next few months after touring Levine Cancer Institute in Pineville, N.C., a few miles from the family’s home in Fort Mill, S.C.
"The tour was interesting and at least I knew what was going on because I got to ask a lot of questions," he said. "Just getting to know what he did every day and during the chemotherapy. He got to sit in a huge chair and bring movies and his phone so he could just chill out while they were doing his chemotherapy. The other cool thing was that for radiation, they had a mask that was the exact shape of his head and designed just for him. He got to keep it and it sits in his closet. I tried it on."
In turn, Bryson passed on his comfort to Steve in the way only a child can.
"Every day he’d get home from school about 3:30 p.m., and I would rest during the day so I’d have energy," Steve explained. "I tried not to let him know I was in too much pain. He’d come straight back and jump in bed and tell me about his day. I always looked forward to that. A lot of times when I didn"t feel good, Bryson was my inspiration."
"I guess I was a big help to him," admitted Bryson, who added that the extra time with his father each day was a bonus. "He couldn’t swallow anything for eight straight days at one point. He was in the bed all day usually. I just tried to stand by his side the whole way through."
The younger Byrnes also was able to support a classmate after her father was diagnosed with cancer last year.
"The class knew Dad had cancer, and later this girl told me her dad has it, too," Bryson recalled. "I asked her what type and she said ‘throat cancer.’ I was like, ‘Wow.’ There was a girl in my class whose dad was going through the same thing mine was. I’m still friends with her and her dad is doing a lot better."
To alleviate the stress on their son, Steve and Karen kept Bryson focused on schoolwork, football and kung fu. Bryson is the starting center for his football team, and despite how sick he felt, Steve never missed a single down while undergoing radiation and chemo last year.
"One of the things we tried to do was have his life remain as normal as possible even though our lives were upside down," Steve said. "There were some mornings I drove myself to radiation when I shouldn’t have simply because I wanted Karen to take Bryson to school like a normal kid. With football, I couldn’t go to all the practices but I made every single game. On one particularly bad day when I was very sick, the players paid tribute to me in the final regular-season game by putting the initials ‘S.B.’ on their wristbands. They held them up before the game started. That was so special to me."
Former NASCAR driver Ken Schrader played a huge, if not comical, role in ensuring Steve made it to that game.
"I had spent the night in the hospital for dehydration, and the next morning, a very young nurse came in and I told her, ‘I’m leaving here at 6:15 p.m. today at the latest,’" Steve recalled. "She said, ‘I don’t think so, Mr. Byrnes.’ I said, ‘No, my son has a 7:15 p.m. football game and I’m not going to be late.’ She replied, ‘Until you can eat a meal and keep it down, we aren’t going to let you go.’ I said, ‘Gotcha. I’m out of here at 6:15.’"
"They brought lunch in and I knew I couldn’t eat it, but five minutes later, Ken Schrader came in completely unannounced," Steve added. "I said, ‘Hey man, I’ve got a problem.’ He said, ‘I know. You have cancer.’ I said, ‘No, that’s not my problem. My problem is they’re not going to let me out of here until I eat this meal.’
"Schrader took the top off the plate and said, ‘Oh, this isn’t a problem.’ He took the plate into the bathroom, raked it into the toilet and flushed. Five minutes later, Karen walked in and I showed her the plate. She looked at Schrader and said, ‘You did this!’ I didn’t eat anything that day but I made it to the game."
Steve and Karen have noticed tremendous maturity and changes in Bryson since last August, and point to that evolution as a silver lining in this journey.
"When Steve was diagnosed, the first thing that came to my mind was Bryson would be living the same childhood I had experienced," Karen related. "I prayed daily that Bryson would not ‘suffer.’
"Midway through Steve’s treatment, I realized Bryson was suffering some, but I also realized he was maturing, being more independent and developing some wonderful character traits. At that point I changed my prayer to be that Bryson’s suffering would be something that made him a better person. I do believe that painful experiences can produce positive results."
Mature and introspective beyond his years, Bryson quickly points out that his family’s faith brought them through the most trying of times.
"Sometimes it seemed like God wasn’t going to answer my prayer but He answered it," Bryson said. "I just trusted in Him. Sometimes it was really tough. Sometimes it seemed unfair or heartbreaking. Sometimes it didn’t seem like He was going to answer my prayers it but if He did say no, he’d still be a great God, because if He did say ‘no,’ there has to be a reason behind it.
"But He said ‘yes’ to my prayers, and Dad is healed from cancer. I just feel like he’s better and he’s rid of cancer. It was a very emotional journey, but God got us through."
At the risk of sounding cliche, Steve says this Father’s Day holds more significance than he ever imagined it could.
"Typically I’m not the type of person who makes a big deal out of Father’s Day," Steve explained. "But whether my birthday in April or every holiday and special occasion since I was diagnosed last August, everything has had added significance. I think about what my life would be like if I didn’t have Bryson or if he didn’t have me. I don’t know how we’re going to celebrate Father’s Day, but for me, it will be an emotional day."