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Byrnes gets support from NASCAR friends fighting illness

March 9th, 2014 8:00 pm by Jeff Birchfield

Byrnes gets support from NASCAR friends fighting illness

Cancer.

That single word can strike fear in the hearts of men, the news that often devastates a family. 

Steve Byrnes remembers the moment last August when he heard the diagnosis of throat cancer. As one who doesn’t drink alcohol or smoke tobacco, he questioned how he got it, but that came after his initial reaction.

“That word cancer is so scary,” said Byrnes, host of NASCAR on FOX. “I have an 11-year-old son and I’ve been married 20 years and I thought about them immediately. I’m not going to lie, there were times when I was scared.”

In the months that followed, Byrnes’ fear was replaced with determination, and his faith in God was strengthened along the way. Byrnes decided to go through dozens of doctor-recommended chemotherapy and radiation treatments although they often left him feeling much worse than before.

“I made a decision once I met with my doctors that I was going to go at this as hard as I could,” he said. “I never thought why me, but more why not me. The first time I went to chemotherapy, there was a 20-year-old college kid in front of me and an 80-year-old woman next to me. 

“Cancer doesn’t play favorites. But, I looked at it as I’m going to do what the doctors tell me to do and everything I know how to do to get healthy. I just decided to spend what energy I had to do my part.”

It took that energy as he lost 50 pounds by the end of the treatments.

Besides the physical battle, the mental battle often takes its toll. Byrnes is regularly uplifted by the encouraging words of friends, acquaintances and fans, especially the news they are praying for him. 

He recently talked to NASCAR team president  J.D. Gibbs whose son had successfully battled cancer. Their conversation made Byrnes reflect on the relationship with his own son.

While getting back to the race track was an obvious goal, nothing was more important last fall than seeing his son’s Pop Warner football games. Byrnes, a former high school quarterback who led his team to a Maryland state championship, made it to every one of his son’s games no matter how bad he felt. A friend from their church also videotaped the games in case he missed something.

His sickness also gave Byrnes a greater love and appreciation of his wife, Karen, and how she embraced the role as caretaker at their Ft. Mill, S.C. home.

“I don’t want to go through this ordeal again, although I will if the cancer pops back up,” he said. “Some very wonderful blessings have come out of this for my family. The relationship, the love I feel for my wife and the way she took care of me, she was basically my home nurse. My son was brave and stepped up to the plate. He continued to get straight-A’s, and never missed a football game.”

For most of his adult life, Byrnes’ focus has been his job as a pit reporter and television host of shows like NASCAR Race Hub. One of the most respected people in the garage area, he has over 30 years of television experience as well as his extensive racing knowledge. 

However in the times of deepest reflection, faith and family consumed his thoughts.

“One of the best things came from one of the darkest days,” he said. “When I got to a place of real honesty with God and myself, I realized all my wife and son wanted from me was my attention. Being home, it changed my perspective, my focus on being a dad and husband. 

“God gave me this gift to continue on for whatever reason. It’s absolutely strengthened my faith. I went through a period of eight days where I didn’t eat, but I didn’t feel afraid. I felt calm, at peace. That’s something you can’t provide for yourself. You have to let God provide that, and I did.”

By winter, he was itching to get back to the race track although there were concerns about the physical demands and the long days of covering the Daytona 500.

“When I wake up, I feel great, which is a blessing,” he said. “As the day wears on, I lose energy, but that’s expected according to the doctors. It’s going to take a while for me to return to normal. I’m stuggling physically, but I’ve had two check-ups which were encouraging. I still have some side effects, but it’s still a blessing.”

When he did return to the track, there was a warm welcome, greater than anything he expected. In one sense, it shouldn’t have been a surprise.

After all, Dale Earnhardt Jr. called as soon as he heard the news to let Byrnes know his airplane was available if needed. Jimmie Johnson and Casey Mears texted him frequently, and Carl Edwards gave him the trophy from his Richmond win last September. Byrnes pointed out it was the the actual trophy he held over his head in victory lane and not a replica.

“I’ve been completely overwhelmed by the support of the NASCAR community and fans,” Byrnes said. “There were grand gestures like that and small gestures from fans I’ve never met. They sent messages on facebook, on twitter and I had hundreds of letters at the studio from people I had never met. I would get a text message from Michael Waltrip which would make me laugh at times when I was not feeling good. Those messages meant the world to me when I was sick.”

A consumate pro, Byrnes hosted a two-hour documentary titled, “The History of Stock Car Racing,” on the History Channel, and has worked as a play-by-play announcer for NFL football on FOX. While still in local television, he produced a weekly pre-game show for the Washington Redskins. However, the personal relationships in the racing business mean more than any professional award.

“One of the blessings that came out of being sick with cancer is you don’t really know the kind of impact you have on people’s lives other than being a broadcaster,” he said. “When I got sick, to see the outpouring of respect, care and concern, it has made my career all worthwhile. I know there are people in the sport who care about me, not as a broadcaster, but as Steve Byrnes the person. That stands out more than any one moment.”

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