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How one student’s history with

cancer is inspiring physicians,

researchers and patients alike

November 20, 2018 ​

Texas A&M College of Medicine student Rhett

Butler was invited to deliver the keynote

speech during the 2018 University of Texas

MD Anderson Faculty Honors Convocation.

One of the most important events of the year

for the institution, the 2018 Faculty Honors

Convocation honored Issam Read, MD, with

the Charles A. LeMaistre, MD, Outstanding Achievement Award in Cancer. Butler delivered an inspirational message of hope, which concluded with a standing ovation.


“Rhett’s speech was directed to those faculty in the audience who work tirelessly, be they a researcher or clinician, toward our mission of ‘Making Cancer History,’” said Karen Fukawa, administrator of the MD Anderson Faculty Senate. “His message very clearly conveyed to them how important their job is, not just for their research or clinical care, but because they give hope to the patients and families.”


After losing a brother to cancer, Butler, a 44-year-old father of two, is dedicating his medical career to serve those with cancer and their caregivers.


When asked why he’s going to medical school at 44, Butler always quotes his late brother, “Because I can.”

Butler believes medical treatment requires a holistic approach from providers that involve not only the patient, but also the family of the patient as well. His message related the story of his younger brother’sbattle with cancer and expressed how important the role compassion and hope played in that journey.


“His message was touching, inspiring and encouraging,” said Wei-Jung Chen, PhD, professor and associate dean for student affairs at the Texas A&M College of Medicine, who also attended the convocation.


In his closing remarks, Butler left with this sentiment: “You choose to take on cancer, of all things, when you could have chosen any area of medicine. Every day, you demonstrate how much conviction and belief you have in what you can accomplish to take care of people with cancer. Why? Because you can and for that, my family thanks you.” Leaving the audience on their feet, his message of hope and compassion will not be forgotten.






Special to the Star-Telegram


FORT WORTH — It was like being gobsmacked by a Gibson.


Guitarists Tommy Emmanuel, Monte Montgomery and Rhett Butler delivered an evening of six-string scintillation at Bass Hall on Wednesday night that was dazzling enough to make you rethink everything you thought you knew about the art of playing the guitar.


Each player offered a unique style. The only thing they had in common was a complete freedom from any confining genre or approach. The influence of rock and jazz was heard most often, but country and folk sources were in there, too. The legacy of John Fahey and Leo Kottke was felt. But these guitarists take the instrument far beyond even the great work of those pioneers.


Australian Emmanuel, a master of the finger-picking style perfected by his idol, Chet Atkins, created an amazingly full, driving sound in the early part of his mostly instrumental set. His medley of Beatles tunes was brilliant in both its arrangement and execution. And his slash-and-burn take on Mason Williams’ Classical Gas was bigger and fuller than the original, which had an orchestra on it.


Montgomery, who was second on the bill, impressed most with dense clusters of jazzy runs he used to embellish his tunes, such as he did on a 10-minute cover of Dire Straits’ Juliet. But his wispy, whispery vocals added little to his efforts.


The most jaw-dropping performance, however, was turned in by Butler, the first warmup act.


The young Texan’s technique is beyond belief. Take, for example, Good and Evil, on which Butler played both acoustic and electric guitars — at the same time!


Or, more exactly, he played half of two guitars simultaneously. Because Butler seldom touched the body of his guitar. He played almost everything on the neck, usually finger-picking up and down the fret board with both hands. And he still managed to create so full a sound all by himself that, if you heard it on CD, you would swear it was six or eight guys playing guitars.


His whole set was from a completely different universe. And that made it an appropriate opening for a concert that was truly out of this world.







Last November, jazz guitarist Rhett Butler was heading home on Interstate 20, exhausted from a two-week concert tour that took him from Georgia through Alabama and Louisiana, when his cellphone rang. Lowering the blare of his favorite Van Halen CD, Butler heard his father's slightly shaken voice on the other end: Doctors had discovered two possibly cancerous tumors growing on his younger brother's neck. Once again, Ashley Butler faced the grim prospect of hospital beds, chemo treatments, and perhaps losing a battle he had been waging for more than 20 years.

On hearing the news, 31-year old Rhett, usually a tower of older-brother strength and resilience, crumpled into a mass of frustration and fear. All he could do was pull his Nissan Frontier truck to the side of the freeway, turn off the ignition and cry. For 45 minutes.


"I always feared getting that call," Butler recalls, "when I did, it just about destroyed me."

After his eyes had no more tears to give, Butler slowly collected himself and headed for his baby brother's side.


Of the ensuing daily vigil at the hospital, Rhett Butler would later write in the liner notes of his most recent CD: "In a fairly comfortable chair, I sit with my feet propped up on the bed. One hand is holding a pen and the other is holding my baby brothers [sic] hand. I listen anxiously for every breath that he takes . . ."


Ashley's lifelong struggle against cancer is the underlying refrain in the sibling saga of Rhett and Ashley Butler. It has informed nearly every facet of Rhett's personal and artistic life. It's the reason he picked up the guitar in the first place and why it became his primary escape. It's embedded in his passionate guitar style, all percussive bursts of melodic energy.


It's apparent in the grin that animates Rhett's face every time Ashley walks into a room.


The stoic grace with which Ashley has shouldered his cancer has made him a role model of strength and resilience. It is Rhett who relies on Ashley as both musical muse and flesh-and-blood compass -- offering perspective as Rhett navigates the narcissistic waters of professional music.


"People always ask me if I'm getting stressed out about getting a new CD done or what I'm thinking before attempting to play two guitars at the same time," says Rhett. "And I always say that my brother's life-and-death fight with cancer is more than I ever could do just playing the guitar. I mean, he's defied the odds just to be here, and that makes him so inspirational."


As Ashley gently pats his big brother's arm, Rhett adds: "He just makes me believe I can do whatever I need to do."

All about Ashley


Rhett Butler -- yes, his real name, chosen, along with Ashley's, by their mother, Cindy, who was a huge Gone With the Wind fan -- was born in Atlanta. His family moved to Humble when he was 3.


In 1982, when Rhett was only 8, his family was brought to its knees by the news that a golf ball-sized tumor had been discovered on 2-year-old Ashley's brain. Formerly known as primitive neuroectodermal, the cancerous growth is notorious for metastasizing so rampantly that doctors at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston excised 90 percent of the growth before telling the Butlers "to simply take Ashley home and just love him."


Translation: Ashley had only months to live.


But the Butlers would fight that gallows timetable. They took Ashley to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York City for six months of radiation, chemotherapy and bone marrow transplants, all designed to burn away the rest of the tumor and any lingering cancer cells.


Ashley Butler is a 27 year brain tumor survivor.


Against all odds, Ashley began to grow stronger. There would be setbacks. Two more operations to remove tumors on both Ashley's brain and neck left him almost completely blind, with a stunted physique (he's 5 feet tall and weighs 175 pounds) and with partial learning disabilities.


But he's alive. And having just celebrated his 26th birthday, Ashley Butler is one of the world's longest-living survivors of this especially ruthless pediatric cancer. "He's really one of a kind," beams Rhett.


Only three years after weathering the trauma of Ashley's first brain operation, 12-year-old Rhett asked his parents for a guitar for Christmas.


"Everybody in the family had been dealing with Ashley's condition in their own way," recalls Rhett. "For me, I just got a guitar, then disappeared into it."


After seven months of lessons, he pursued the instrument on his own intense terms. Day after day, he retreated into a musical shell. What blossomed was Butler's fiery musical work ethic marked by his constant repetition of some blindingly fast guitar passages by everyone from Eddie Van Halen to Stevie Ray Vaughn.


"We listened to so much Eddie Van Halen, it was coming out of our ears," says Hugh Butler, Rhett's father. "We never had to tell Rhett to go practice. It was more like: 'Rhett, it's time to eat. Rhett, it's time to go to bed.' "

The obsessive-compulsive guitarist was born.


"Rhett's drug is definitely his guitar," says Kelly Brown, a Dallas musician and Butler collaborator. "A drug in that the way he has dealt with his family pain; instead of taking drugs to numb it, he has become obsessive about that instrument."


Admitted to the prestigious jazz program at the University of North Texas, Rhett lasted two years before quitting the program. UNT probably didn't understand his idiosyncratic approach to the instrument. Early on, Rhett developed a trademark hammer-on style that allows him to play two guitars at once by fingering each of their fret boards, coaxing filigreed harmonies and shimmering melodies without needing to strum.


By 1999, Rhett had saved enough money to buy recording equipment, but he needed a polished demo to launch his music career. Enter Ashley, who dug deep into his personal savings to come up with a $1,000 loan for his brother to complete his first serious CD demo, Live and Uncut.


"Yup, I really did believe he could be good," Ashley says, sitting next to his brother. "I really believed in you."


Not a single live concert goes by in which Rhett doesn't speak proudly of his younger brother. And Ashley is omnipresent in The Kid From Kilkenny, Rhett's recent CD.


Rhett is channeling profits from The Kid From Kilkenny to the Ashley Grant Butler Pediatric Assistance Endowment, whose funds go to Houston's MD Anderson Cancer Center -- the clinic that has treated Ashley. Rhett will play a fund-raising concert Saturday at Fort Worth's Artistic Blends Coffeehouse and Theatre.


Writing and producing The Kid From Kilkenny, a reference to Ashley's roots in the Irish town, was one of Rhett's primary antidotes against his brother's latest bout with cancer.


"He manically worked night and day, just sweating blood over it all, to express how he felt about Ashley," recalls their father, Hugh.


The material ranges from Irish-sounding reels to songs whose names carry some Butler family significance. In Lil's Fried Chicken, Butler rhapsodizes about his grandmother's kitchen specialty. The Piddler is a direct reference to Ashley's favorite activity of "piddling," which is creatively doing nothing.


"I really believe that Ashley is the basis for so much of Rhett's music," adds Cindy Butler, the boys' mother and a math and English schoolteacher. "Because Ashley is so musical himself, he will listen to Rhett's songs and say whether he likes them or not -- he'll even critique Rhett when he has hit a wrong note."


On a recent warm October night, Rhett is the opening act at Dallas' Granada Theater for one of his musical heroes, jazz-fusion guitarist Al DiMeola. Standing onstage in Diesel jeans and fitted black shirt, Rhett Butler sways, trancelike, before beginning his first composition.


Not one of his shows goes by without the guitarist weaving Ashley's story into his stage patter.


"Ashley is thrilled to sign autographs of The Kid From Kilkenny," says Rhett after the show. Butler recalls playing to a packed house in April in Houston where Ashley was so in demand he was signing autographs before Rhett hit his first notes.


"So before I went onstage, I went up to Ashley and said, 'Give me a hug' and he then joked: 'Leave me alone, I'm working here.' He is just thrilled to be part of what I do."


"I think my brother's music is good," adds Ashley. "But what I really like is to autograph it."

Motivation and weakness


Rhett Butler's love for his brother is not borne of some forced sense of obligation or even any "but for the grace of God go I" guilt. It stems from a heartfelt sharing of childhood memories of playing with action figures or building Lego fortresses.


"Ashley is really a big Peter Pan," says Rhett. "He may be 26 today but he's also 11. He's always going to be 11."


"Whenever Ashley gets to spend a long time with Rhett," says Cindy Butler, "just hanging out at the Sonic or the mall, he considers Rhett to be that somebody who can make him whole in his handicapped state. When Ashley is with Rhett, nobody is blind, nobody is handicapped."


On a recent Saturday in Butler's Denton home, Rhett runs his athletic hands gently over the contours of his brother's shaved head, stroking the outlines of Ashley's cancer operation scars visible through his wisps of hair.


"He was always the best patient," Rhett says. "Just a little soldier."


Ironically enough, for all of the love Rhett lavishes on his brother, and how their bond nourishes his music, it may ultimately prevent him from realizing his full musical potential.


"I think in Rhett's life," says Kelly Brown, "Ashley is both the thing that motivates him and the weakness that brings him to his knees. I think he feels so responsible as a big brother to make his little brother's life better that that feeling is the one thing that may interrupt his artistic and professional drive."


But Cindy Butler isn't convinced. She has often witnessed Ashley cajoling his older brother to be more aggressive about his music, egging him on to play in bars and other venues where Rhett is, so far, reluctant to go.


"Ashley would be very disappointed in Rhett if he were to allow his music to fall by the wayside," she says. "In fact, Ashley is always saying that if Rhett could just tell his story on the Oprah Winfrey Show, his music would really take off."


For Rhett, though, it all comes down to balance. After touring extensively two years ago, Butler realized how much he risked burning out on the full-time-musician's life. He now works part time as the soccer and basketball coach for Denton's Selwyn School, which allows him to pursue his highly specialized music at his own pace and, most vitally, still be in close proximity to his brother.


"From the road, he talks to his brother every night, and I really think it just centers him," says Chris Miller, a musician who has toured extensively with Rhett. "You know the musician's lifestyle, especially on the road, allows for a lot of drinking, partying and girls, but I think that his relationship with his brother shows him how these things are not so important."


Being with his brother gratifies Rhett in ways no multi-platinum CD or a week's run at New York's Village Vanguard ever could.


"I really feel that if I just did the music, it might be an empty thing," Butler admits. "From my point of view, being successful means having the guitar part fit in with all the other parts of my life, because it is those other parts that keep me grounded. And if it takes me longer to have recognition for being able to play, then I'm willing to wait."





By Tess Felder 7/29/05


Rhett Butler of the US city of Dallas, Texas is making his younger brother Ashley’s dream come true in Kilkenny this week.


At age two, Ashley was diagnosed with a rare malignant brain tumor, and his doctors estimated that he would live for another four months.


He is now 25.


Then in November last he returned to hospital because of two tumors which had formed as a result of the radiation he received as a child.


Knowing Ashley’s interest in their family’s ancestry, including roots in Kilkenny, Rhett promised to take his brother on the journey of a lifetime.


In order to raise the money to pay for a holiday for the two brothers and their parents, in March Rhett released a CD on which he plays guitar. He also promoted the CD with a number of gigs as fund raisers.


After the initial $9,000 (7,200 Euro) for the family’s nine-day trip to Ireland, the remaining proceeds will go to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas where Ashley receives treatments, Rhett said.


The CD called The Kid from Kilkenny, available on features Rhett on guitar and includes Irish-style songs as well.


The Butler family arrived in Ireland on Sunday and spent three days in Kilkenny. They didn’t meet up with any distant relatives but they did visit Kilkenny Castle, which their very distant relatives would have called home.


The brothers and their parents also enjoyed “driving on the wrong side of the road.” On their first holiday outside of the US, Ashley was surprised that the Irish had not discovered the joy of iced tea – and that a can of Coke could cost two Euro.


Still, Rhett said: “This is a dream trip to come here.”





By Louis B. Parks / freelance writer and Houston Chronicle film critic.

The most emotionally raw scene in guitarist Rhett Butler's documentary about his brother Ashley's 28-year battle with cancer does not deal directly with Ashley.


In truth, most of Ashley's scenes in Chasing Miracles are happy ones; family movies — shot mostly at their home in Humble - of young Ashley riding a bicycle or singing and being playfully teased by Rhett; of Ashley cooking; or, with his dad, "speaking" with Hillary Rodham Clinton during her run for the Democratic presidential nomination.


Chasing Miracles, which is produced by Butler and directed by Shane Patrick Sykes, is more about what came for the Butler family after Ashley's death. "What do you do when the fight is over?" Sykes asks in the introduction.


For Rhett Butler and his mother, Cindy, the answer was very different. While Ashley was alive, Rhett, an accomplished guitarist, had done a five-disc box set that raised $30,000 to pay for some of Ashley's medical needs. When Ashley died in May 2010, at age 30, his brother threw himself into trying to raise money to support cancer research. "I had started a partnership with the scientist, Dr. Shimon Slavin (in Israel) to develop the idea of a solid vaccine implant. To push that science forward."


Rhett began making a 20-minute movie to communicate his goals to potential contributors.


"Making the movie has been therapy for me," Rhett says. "I've spent 10 months working on this. That was getting to spend every day with my brother. All those little (home movies), those are Ashley's humor, those are the ways Ashley and I communicated."


Rhett's father, Hugh, gave the project his blessing. His mother, however, was not enthusiastic about it.


"My mother doesn't want to deal with cancer (anymore)," Rhett says.


In the middle of the Chasing Miracles is a painful scene that changed, or at least added to, the film's focus. Rhett is visiting his parents, who now live in Georgetown. Emotionally distraught over what to do with all Ashley's things, Cindy Butler sobs in agony as she begs Rhett not to spend all his time and talents on these new projects.


"Do you think I'm crazy for not wanting you to delve into the cancer thing?" she asks, tears on her cheeks. "Nobody should have to live that, just living with the disappointments."


After 28 years of tenaciously fighting for Ashley, the scene shows that cancer is the last thing with which she wants her family involved.


"I had the camera with me, and I put it on the tripod and aimed it at her," Rhett says. "That was the moment (the movie) went from just wanting to share the story with investors to 'OK, this is a documentary.' Because there was another story, inside the family."


Large portions of Chasing Miracles follow Rhett as he talks with donors, doctors, scientists and others such as Elizabeth Thompson, president of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. There are also commentaries from musicians and clergy who know the family or Rhett on how such an experience affects people.


The film includes touching comments from former boxing champion turned minister George Foreman discussing his personal relationship with Ashley. Since the Butlers lived in Humble, they became friends with Foreman, one of that area's most famous residents.


"From the moment they met, they got along like peas and carrots," Rhett says. "Here's an unbelievable tough guy, and with my brother, he just melts. We would go to George's church, and George would just sit there and talk to him about the silliest things. Ashley's favorite thing was to tell people he was friends with this famous person."


The 66-minute documentary had its world premiere April 10 at the Dallas International Film Festival. It premieres in Houston at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Dosey Doe Coffee House, 25911 Interstate 45 North in The Woodlands.


Butler and accordionist Joel Guzman will play a set at 8:30 p.m., following the screening. Guzman worked with Butler on the soundtrack of Chasing Miracles. Some of that music will be performed during Saturday's show.

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