Missy Byrd is having one of those years everyone can envy.
It started with a Beyoncé concert. The next morning the 25-year-old Tacoma Air Force veteran embarked on a cross-country road trip. Ever since, she’s been checking things off her list. She smoked weed for the first time, and then a few more times after that. Those experiences helped her come up with an idea for an app and she earned a job because of it.
Oh, and she competed on “Survivor,” one of 20 castaways competing on the 39th season, premiering Wednesday, Sept. 25, on CBS. (The season also marks the return of two previous “Survivor” winners — “Boston Rob” Mariano and Sandra Diaz-Twine — who will act as mentors to the competitors this time around.)
“All of this I’ve called my Oprah year,” Byrd said with relentless good cheer in a call from Thailand where she was on vacation. “It’s my Oprah year featuring Beyoncé.”
If anyone’s earned it, Byrd has. Her Oprah year was preceded by two years of fear, confusion and paranoia after she says she was diagnosed with a tumor in her pituitary gland, the pea-sized organ in the brain that regulates several psychological and hormonal processes.
A basketball player at the U.S. Air Force Academy, her life was not only turned upside down by the tumor, but scrambled.
“I didn’t know it was happening at all, I just started feeling minor changes in my body pretty much,” Byrd said. “And so I would go to basketball practice, I would go to class, and I would just suffer in some areas. I would do really bad on this test, or I would do something bad in basketball. I couldn’t stay at school. My dad died during that time, and the tumor messed with my emotions. Normally a parent dies and you cry, but my body didn’t let me have those responses. I was really out of whack, hiding from people, running away. Crazy stuff.”
Initially, doctors blamed her athletic lifestyle for the changes to her body, she said, and things continued to get worse. She lost 20 pounds and developed a stutter. She couldn’t force herself to talk to anyone and hid her problems from her family.
She was eventually transferred to Joint Base Lewis-McChord where a doctor immediately identified the problem. Tests showed her hormone levels were off the chart and an MRI revealed the tumor. The doctor treated her with a medication that shrank the tumor and recalibrated her systems.
“From there, I was just like, I’m super lucky, so I probably should start doing all the things that I have been wanting to do and just been putting off,” Byrd said. “So I went to see Beyoncé, took a road trip and then I applied for ‘Survivor,’ and I got in. It was pretty wild.”
Compared to all that she’s been through the past few years, the misery of competing on “Survivor” was an exquisite joy. She shivered through long nights of rain, awaking each morning and warming herself by floating face down in the ocean. And she admitted she always thought show producers would sneak food to the contestants in dire times. Not true.
“If you faint, you faint,” she said.
She came prepared. Her love of Jeff Probst’s ageless proto-reality show is off the charts. She fell in love while suffering through her time at the Academy and has binge-watched season after season, working through all the angles and strategies. She daydreamed what it would be like to wear a buff, and got her chance to wear the Lairo Tribe’s colors when the show filmed last March and April in Fiji.
“It’s something I’ve always watched — what other people do — watched and critiqued them, like, ‘Oh, that was a dumb move, why would you do that?’ ” she said. “So to get out there and to actually play and wear a buff, the majority of time it was surreal. It was like a different world. It was a really cool experience. I wouldn’t trade it. I cried more times than not. If there was a sunset, I would be like, ‘God, there’s a sunset and I’m on ‘Survivor.’ ‘ It was crazy.”
The 39th edition of “Survivor” kicks off at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 25 on CBS.
This story has been updated to remove what could have been perceived as a spoiler.