By Jasmine Reese - No parent wants to ever find out that their child has to battle a real monster -- cancer. But for Tyler Butler-Figueroa's mom and dad, the nightmare became a reality.
At only four years old, Tyler (now 10 years old) received the diagnosis -- "Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (A.L.L.)."
"We noticed that Tyler did not have much energy while having lunch [one day] with family," Kisua Butler-Figueroa, his mother, said. "He had begun to not want to eat or play much. I thought maybe his iron levels were low since I am anemic. But after giving him some vitamins, he did not improve.
"At UNC Children's Hospital in Chapel Hill, NC, the physicians and staff were excellent. When we walked into Tyler's room, we could already tell the difference in his appearance due to the blood transfusion. I had all kinds of thoughts running through my head. 'Why my family?' etc. The test came back and confirmed cancer."
The words rang in Kisua and her husband's ears. They had just given birth to Tyler's brother as well. The younger sibling was three months old at the time of Tyler's diagnosis.
They put on a brave face for Tyler. "But, we were dying on the inside," Kisua said.
Then, the fight began.
"Tyler did not cry or feel sad, " Kisua remembered. "I would not let myself cry in front of him. We left the hospital that first time after a week."
Tyler went on to endure three years of chemo.
"We moved closer to the hospital. Tyler went through the phase of his hair falling out, and I think that was the hardest part for him -- the outside physical appearance. We also had to push him in a stroller when he doubled his weight size and could hardly walk, due to the steroids he was on for a whole month. When we would go to church, the walk from the parking lot into the church was too far for him to walk without being exhausted.
Just by looking at Tyler now, no one would ever think that he has been through so much."
After three years, Tyler finished all his chemotherapy treatments.
"While Tyler was receiving his chemo, he had to have surgery to have the 'port' (a small disc made of plastic or metal about the size of a quarter that sits just under the skin) installed in his chest for easy access to his veins, so Tyler was not able to play any type of sports or have any rough physical contact which would cause the port to be damaged," Kisua explained.
Tyler was still in recovery, and he was restricted from playing sports, running, and roughhousing. He had to keep his port intact. But for a happy, energetic seven-year-old, it was most likely a boring and hard order to adhere to.
But just like that, in the most timely manner, Tyler spotted a flyer for violin lessons at his school.
"He told me that he wanted to join," Kisua said. "We got [him] signed up, and he's been with the group since then."
Kidznotes is a non-profit organization connected with Durham, NC schools. It is a 100% paid scholarship program for kids who can't afford music lessons. It takes inspiration from the El Sistema model of youth orchestras.
Through them, Tyler receives free violin lessons, teaching him various styles of music, including classical, folk, and holiday music. He also plays in a full youth orchestra.
In the photo to the left, Tyler was just beginning his journey on violin at a Kidznotes class. Since his start, he's developed a serious passion and ambition for the instrument.
Tyler practices daily, sometimes hours on end, according to his mom. He loves to play new songs by ear, and perform for family and friends.
"Tyler was always a smart and humble little boy growing up," Kisua said. "[But after] joining the Kidznotes music program, he's become more responsible, especially now that he's going through a phase of peer pressure. He's learning that he cannot follow the lead of other students that are doing things that they should not be doing just to try to be accepted."
Tyler also wants to use his music and story to encourage other children fighting the disease.
"Tyler has to get check-ups at UNC Pediatric Oncology, and he will bring his violin and play some songs in the waiting area for other pediatric patients and their families," Kisua said. "He loves to be an example of hope and to tell his story of survival."
Between Kidznotes performances and Youtube, Tyler is starting to get some attention. Of course, his biggest fans are his mom, dad, and little brother, Adam (now six years old).
After his mom started his own Youtube channel called TylerBF-Violinist, he expressed his wishes to become famous and play violin all over the world.
His family is supportive of his ambitions, but also knows he could change his mind and pursue other avenues.
"We are truly blessed to have Tyler in our lives, and he is a testimony to anyone that has been through or is going through a life-altering event. He's still a growing boy and gets into trouble sometimes -- as we all have -- but I have always taught him to not use what he has been through as a crutch or an excuse to why you can't achieve your goals."
Besides playing the violin, Tyler loves learning to speak Spanish. He loves to play games and sports with his little brother. He goes to the park and rides his bike and skateboard. He watches cartoons and plays video games and ride in go-carts. He's a happy and healthy 10-year-old boy.
Do you know a professional, amateur, or student musician with an inspirational, funny, heartwarming, or unique story?