For one family, anything is possible

Forty-four-year-old musician starts medical school at Texas A&M to honor his late brother’s cancer battle
September 28, 2018

Rhett and Ashley Butler are brothers with one-in-a-million stories. Their lives and experiences are inextricably linked to each other. Now, through medicine, Rhett Butler continues to honor his late brother and will serve others who fight cancer like Ashley did.

Rhett and Ashley grew up in Humble, Texas. You may have guessed by now that their mother loved Gone with the Wind. In 1982, younger brother Ashley, then age 2, was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. He was expected to live for only a few months.

“My family had that one child in ten million—he actually survived,” Rhett said. “So, I grew up in a family where we believed anything is possible.”

Rhett’s childhood was full of time at his brother’s doctors’ offices and chemotherapy treatments. His experiences taught him that medical treatment doesn’t involve only the patient—it affects the family as well and requires a holistic approach from providers.

“Our lives were always linked to Ashley and health care,” Rhett said. “Being that ingrained in health care at such a young age and seeing the role of family and the abilities of medicine, it can make a person want to make things better not just for the patient, but for patients’ families.”

Ashley was diagnosed with, and survived, a second tumor in 1987. By that time, Rhett found a passion for music. As the years went on, Rhett became a professional guitarist, playing around the world. He even developed his skills so attuned that he played two guitars at one time.

While touring, Ashley was never far from Rhett’s mind, and he often wrote about his brother in his lyrics. When a third tumor diagnosis came in 2004, Rhett took on many of the responsibilities as Ashley’s caregiver and moved back home. For the next six years, he never toured more than a few hundred miles from his family, so that he could attend to Ashley’s needs when necessary.

In 2010, Ashley’s near-lifelong struggle with cancer ended.

While Ashley’s battle with cancer ended, Rhett’s continued. He channeled his creative energy and healing into writing a book, The Patient and Caregiver’s Guide to Cancer, and making a documentary, Chasing Miracles, which premiered at the 2011 Dallas International Film Festival.

As the book and film helped inspire other families battling cancer, Rhett began to be invited to speak at conferences and meetings. Even as he shared his experience with others, Rhett had a lot of questions himself—questions about science, medicine, cancer and health care.

While giving a talk about family and patient care at the Texas Association of Neurological Surgeons convention in 2012, Rhett was inspired to be more active in medicine. Something just clicked into place.

Rhett had no science background from his first time as an undergraduate student; he had been a music major. At nearly 40 years old, Rhett began taking biology and chemistry classes at a community college. He performed well.

“The subjects were complex, so I studied hard. I aced the standardized organic chemistry exam,” Rhett said. “That success made me confident that I might actually be able to launch a new career. And as I said, I’ve been instilled since childhood with the idea that anything is possible.”

Butler called the oncologist who treated his brother, and was now a family friend, to ask about a career in medicine. “I wanted to know if studying medicine would be worth it if I couldn’t practice before I was 50 years old,” Rhett said. “He said, ‘You’re going to be 50 anyway. What do you want to be doing when you’re 50?’”

So began Rhett’s path to becoming a physician. He received a master’s degree in biomedical science from the University of North Texas Health Science Center in 2016 and is now studying at Texas A&M College of Medicine.

Rhett said that his wife and two sons, age 3 and 6, are settling well into the Bryan-College Station community. His parents also moved to the area to support the family while Rhett is in medical school.

He wants to teach his boys two major values: the Texas A&M core value of excellence and the importance of caring for family. “My older son is a great big brother to the younger one,” Rhett said. “That makes me really happy.”

Rhett is preparing to fight and care for others with cancer. “I want to go into oncology,” he said. “I have a good understanding of what patients and their families want from their doctors. I want something good to come from all of the knowledge, education and struggles I have experienced. I want others to know that anything is possible.”

— Tamim Choudhury

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