In a season that has already represented performers with disabilities, including musician Kodi Lee and comedian Ryan Niemiller, Tuesday’s episode of “America’s Got Talent” shined a light on young violinist Tyler Butler-Figueroa, who was bullied for having cancer.
After Butler-Figueroa walked onstage for his audition, “America’s Got Talent” (“AGT”) judge Julianne Hough asked Butler-Figueroa when and why he started playing violin.
“I started playing the violin when I was 7-and-a-half years old,” the North Carolina 11-year-old said. “I wanted to start playing the violin because I was being bullied in school. It’s because I had cancer. I almost died.”
In a video clip, Butler-Figueroa revealed he had been diagnosed with leukemia at age 4. Leukemia typically affects a person’s blood or bone marrow. His mom said when they were out to dinner one night that year, Butler-Figueroa looked pale and was clearly not feeling well. She took him to the emergency room where bloodwork showed he had cancer.
Butler-Figueroa said he started chemotherapy treatment for cancer, which caused him to lose his hair. At school, he said he was bullied for having the diagnosis.
“When I lost my hair, I was really sad and embarrassed at the same time to go to school,” Butler-Figueroa said. “They used to make fun of me and laugh at me because I was different. They would spread rumors to say that my cancer was contagious and they all wanted to stay away from me.”
Eventually, according to Butler-Figueroa’s mom, he saw a flyer at school for an after-school program to learn violin. Butler-Figueroa took to it and began practicing, finding playing the violin helped him manage the hard parts of his life.
“When I play the violin, it helps me forget about all the bad stuff,” Butler-Figueroa said. “I just didn’t want to be the kid who had cancer, so now I’m the kid who plays the violin.”
Onstage, Butler-Figueroa played his violin along with Kelly Clarkson‘s empowering upbeat pop hit, “Stronger.” His performance earned a standing ovation from the crowd and high praise from the judges.
“I just want to commend you in taking something that has probably been the hardest things that you will ever have to go through and turning it around and finding something that brings you joy,” Hough said.
“AGT” judge Simon Cowell asked Butler-Figueroa how he was feeling in the moment (proud) before asking him about his health now. Butler-Figueroa shared he had been in remission from cancer “for almost four years.” Cowell then had a message for Butler-Figueroa’s bullies before hitting the golden buzzer, which guarantees Butler-Figueroa will advance to the live semi-finals of the competition.
“You are an extraordinary young man,” Cowell said. “We hear too many stories of people being bullied. But most people are bullied because they’re better than the people who bully them … and I would like to say something on your behalf to the bullies.”
In an interview after his audition, Butler-Figueroa said, “It just feels like a dream come true.”
Watch new episodes of “AGT” the rest of the season on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.