UPDATED Jan. 24, 2023: Madison Russo was charged with theft. Eldridge police say her cancer claims are unfounded.
It was Thursday, Feb. 10, and Maddie Russo was sitting in her accounting class at St. Ambrose University. Her cell phone buzzed, she looked at the screen, and had no idea her life was about to change forever.
Now, a little more than eight months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the 2021 North Scott graduate’s world was rocked to its very core.
After learning last week that a football-sized tumor is attached to her spine, Maddie is trying to make sense of what her life is going to look like.
Yes, you read that right. Maddie, a lifelong Eldridge resident, seems to be in the fight of her young life, and she’s just 19 years old.
“Life has been crazy,” she said last week. “It’s like a Catch-22. I can’t win for losing. I feel like I’ve been rocked to my soul, and right now, everything is kind of uncertain. I just want to know my game plan, and right now, I don’t know what that is.
“Of course, every day can’t be sunshine and rainbows, but you can’t just choose to be mad at the cancer. It just happens to people. If you stay depressed, and in a dark space, I feel like your body will never get better.”
Maddie’s cancer journey began last winter, two years after being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, which means the pancreas produces little or no insulin.
Last winter, Maddie remembers feeling just “little bit off,” and recalls having sporadic fevers, some bloody stools and random nosebleeds. However, her annual blood checkup revealed that her white blood cell count was not in normal range.
A variety of tests pointed her to the University of Iowa Hospital’s oncology department, which led to what she describes as “the worst day of my life.
“It was early in the morning, and I had been anxiously awaiting these test results,” said Maddie. “My phone rang, and it said, ‘Iowa City Oncology.’ I stepped out of the classroom and took the call.
“They told me they had found a mass on my pancreas, and that I had Stage 2 pancreatic cancer. I was terrified, and I definitely still am. I was in shock. I didn’t think it could be true. I’m so young, and I wondered how this could happen. I went through all the emotions, and I was pretty numb.
“I remember hanging up the phone, and I was a mess. I was literally bawling, but somehow I ended up getting the courage to wipe away my tears and went back into class, which now, when I think about it, was pretty crazy.”
The news was devastating. Maddie was expecting doctors to tell her they could find nothing wrong.
“When you hear pancreatic cancer, it’s so nasty,” she said. “You never want to get cancer, and if you do get diagnosed, you can’t choose where you get it. Of all the ones, why does it have to be this one?”
For her, surgery was not an option.
“My tumor is on the tail of my pancreas, and it’s very deep-rooted,” she said. “Doctors said that if they went in, the surgery would do more harm. There was more risk than reward.”
She was given an 11-percent survival rate for five years. Four days later, on Valentine’s Day, Maddie began her battle in earnest with the first of 15 rounds of oral chemotherapy, along with 90 rounds of radiation.
Three months later, Maddie learned that the tumor was shrinking and responding to treatment, but at the same time found out that the cancer had spread to her blood, and she was diagnosed with leukemia. She refused to give in, and remained optimistic.
Dream internship, and 3.85 GPA
She finished the semester with a 3.85 GPA, and landed her “dream internship” at John Deere, all while continuing to undergo treatments.
The chemotherapy and radiation continued to work, however, it was discovered that they were affecting her liver, so those treatments were stopped last month. She started a new medication for her liver, and had been off treatments for five weeks when her world was rocked again last week.
“Over the last few weeks, my back had been hurting so bad, and I couldn’t figure out why,” said Maddie. “I was kind of nervous because I’d been off chemo, and I didn’t want my cancer to get worse. They did a PET scan sooner than originally planned, and then found the football-sized tumor.
“What’s really tough is that I thought I was making pretty good progress on the other cancer, and now it seems like everything has gone haywire again. Right now, everything is kind of uncertain.
“I’m just trying to continue on with life, and still go to school, work, and keep doing things that are normal. Obviously, my normal has changed. I’m home a lot, and with treatments you’re very sick, and they can get you down. I try to go at it with the best attitude because I think your attitude during treatment can play a big part in your outcome.
“They gave me a slim 11-percent survival rate for five years before this latest tumor was discovered,” she continued. “Eleven percent. At 19 years old, I don’t know if I will live to see the day I graduate from college, get married, or become a mom. In the meantime, I will fight.”
Maddie had a consultation with doctors at Mayo Clinic last week, just to get another opinion. She is still attending classes at Ambrose, and working at Deere. She’s juggling school and a corporate job, and won’t turn 20 until April.
She’s had the support of family and friends, but also the support of the Ohl Strong Foundation, which was established in memory of Dr. Brent Ohl, by his wife, Peggy, after he lost a short but hard-fought battle with pancreatic cancer in 2016.
Maddie’s mom, Peggy, and Dr. Ohl, attended elementary school together, and both are 1986 North Scott graduates.
“We’ve always known Peggy (Ohl),” said Maddie. “She and my dad shared the same birthday and grew up together. When Peggy found out about me, she immediately reached out, and I received a whole package of support materials, including $500 in gift cards.
“Immediately, I was overwhelmed with what the foundation gave. It was nice to know somebody in the community was actively advocating for a cure, and I know since they went through it firsthand with Brent, it was important to them to turn their hardship into helping other people.”
Maddie is also determined to help others. She does a lot of public speaking for the National Pancreas Foundation, as well as Project Purple, an impact-driven organization with a vision of a world without pancreatic cancer.
As for herself, she will continue to fight.
“I feel like when you deal with cancer, you just never know when it’s going to happen, or what it’s going to do,” she said. “That’s the unfortunate part. I wish everybody could just be cured and you could move on. As for me, I’m just going to ride it out.”