IMAGINE THERE’S NO CANCER: Vegas rockers Imagine Dragons aid pediatric cancer families
“The path to heaven runs through miles of clouded hell.”
So much hope clung to 10 haunting words.
“He had that lyric written on a banner in his room,” says Ben McKee, multi-instrumentalist/singer/songwriter of Las Vegas rock band Imagine Dragons, the slight catch in his voice betraying his emotions as he speaks of late pediatric cancer victim — and namesake of the band’s philanthropic foundation — Tyler Robinson. “It’s from (the Dragons’ song) ‘It’s Time’ and it was his anthem for getting through the chemotherapy treatments.”
And that is when music moves from a pleasure for the ears to a balm for the soul. “A song can be so much more than a song to people,” McKee says about the tune he co-wrote. “We put out songs and then it stops being art and becomes what anybody makes of it. Now that song always belongs to Tyler,” he says about the Utah teen who died in 2013 after succumbing to Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer. Yet during his illness, Tyler was brought by his big brother, Jesse, to see the pre-fame Dragons perform “It’s Time” at a small club in Provo — where, hoisted atop his sibling’s shoulders and bald from chemo, Tyler belted it out with passion.
“He was just lighting up,” McKee recalls. “It was one of the more meaningful moments we’ve ever had onstage.”
So meaningful, in fact, that the Imagine Dragons — McKee and bandmates Dan Reynolds, Wayne Sermon and Daniel Platzman — paid tribute to the admirable young cancer battler in a tangible way by creating the Tyler Robinson Foundation (TRF). On Sept. 14, the TRF, which assists families nationwide, will hold its fifth annual “Rise Up” gala — a sold-out affair — at Caesars Palace.
Honorees being saluted this year for their humanitarian efforts on behalf of the foundation are the Vegas Golden Knights, Live Nation, youth ambassador/Florida-based singer-songwriter Tris Weeks, and business executive/Dragons business manager Jeff Schwartz.
Should you wonder what made the young man they honor so special, visit the foundation’s website, where a letter Tyler wrote in the midst of his struggle is still posted. Writing of his despair at the surgery and treatments he faced, he told his mom he didn’t want to go through with it.
“Our local church leader came over that night and counseled with me,” Tyler wrote. “He told me that people who go through hard things either become bitter and angry, or they learn from it and become stronger. He told me that I had a choice to make. From that night on, I chose to be the bigger man.”
On the opposite coast, in Pensacola, Fla., 17-year-old Tris Weeks, an Imagine Dragons fan, joined the foundation bandwagon, raising nearly $30,000 from open-mic nights and benefit concerts to fight pediatric cancer. “We take so many things for granted so often, and to hear a fellow teenager who is having to go through all these struggles while others are complaining about school and he just wants to be in school — that’s what made me know I had to do something,” Weeks says.
“As a musician myself, I thought it was so incredible that music was at the root of it, that it was music that connected Tyler to the band. I feel like Tyler’s spirit is there every time the band sings that song.”
Having survived stage 4 kidney cancer in 2011 — after he was told he had mere months to live — Schwartz needed no prodding to deploy his business smarts to help the Dragons set up the foundation as a nonprofit. “It was very scary, so I have a very special place in my heart to speak out about cancer, and on top of that, I have two small kids,” says Schwartz, 60.
“When you’re an adult, the brain can process the fact you have cancer. But when you’re a child, you can’t interpret it. I can’t even imagine what those parents have to go through to explain to their child that they have cancer.”
Noting that children, by and large, are the most innocent victims of cancer — they don’t smoke to risk lung cancer, drink alcohol to court liver cancer or soak up the sun’s rays to invite skin cancer — McKee says the foundation is set up to help families with everything except treatment, addressing all the other financial burdens of the disease: parents losing work time or even their jobs to care for a cancer-stricken child; transportation costs to sometimes far-flung treatment centers; and paying for basic needs such as groceries and making mortgage payments, as well as expensive specialized diets for some young patients.
“So many aspects are severely debilitating to a family,” McKee says. “We even help them take a vacation, take the kids to Disneyland. A lot of times it’s not two parents with one kid; they might have four or five children, and one has cancer, and because of that they are not able to provide anything positive for the rest of the family. For them to be able to have a family trip means so much to raise the morale of the family through this incredibly dark time.”
Reflecting on the courageous young man he and his bandmates came to know, McKee adds: “He was being a support for his family, like he was the strong person helping those around him go through the experience of him having cancer. He was an incredible kid. We want that spirit to keep on beyond his life.”
Through that clouded hell that his idols, the Imagine Dragons, sang about, Tyler Robinson found the path to heaven.