Teen’s cancer journey spotlights solid relationships  

By Eric Toliver, Richland Memorial Hospital

Madison and her fiance LoganA year ago, Madison Gibson’s life was like any 18-year-old’s. She was attending Olney Central College, working part time at a local grocery store, babysitting every now and then, and spending her free time with her friends and her boyfriend. 

But last August, her life changed.

After the family’s vacation, she felt tired and a little short of breath, but didn’t think much about it. Then, in the middle of a conversation, Madison’s grandmother asked in a frightened voice, “What is wrong with your neck?”

When they noticed the enlarged area her braid was covering, Madison’s family rushed her to Richland Memorial Hospital’s (RMH) Emergency Department. It was the beginning of her second cancer journey, which includes trips and friendships between Olney and Carle Foundation Hospital in Champaign-Urbana.

RMH and Carle are working toward a potential integration that would help make access to care in the region even better. Today, RMH—a 135-bed hospital and associated healthcare services with more than 500 employees—works to keep quality healthcare local and then partners with Carle Foundation Hospital when patients like Madison need advanced specialty care.

After examining Madison, RMH general surgeon/surgical oncologist Dr. Stephen Reid scheduled a PET scan and a biopsy.

“The biopsy had to be sent to Mayo Clinic. (Dr. Reid) thought it could be either thyroid cancer or lymphoma,” recalled Madison’s mother, Emily Gibson. 

Waiting on the test results was tough. Hearing Madison had Stage 4 cancer was tougher.

The biopsy confirmed Madison had a rare type of thyroid cancer. Dr. Reid referred her to Dr. Kelly Cunningham, a Carle otolaryngologist who specializes in neck and throat cancers.

The transition of care worked the way it should.

“When I met with (Dr. Cunningham,), it was evident she already knew about me and that Dr. Reid had already spoken with her. It was like they were on the same page with everything,” Madison said, also complimenting RMH Diagnostic Imaging for getting other necessary information to her Carle doctors.

“She took time to explain everything and made me feel comfortable when I was scared.”

Surgery quickly came next.

“That was the scariest day of my life, because I knew they were going to cut into my neck,” Madison said. “They kept assuring me that she is an excellent surgeon.”

Madison’s mother, a nurse, also found comfort knowing one of her colleagues from the Faceook group Show Me Your Stethoscope ended up being Madison’s nurse at Carle.

“It was like a pat on the back from God,” she said.

Madison was overwhelmed with the outpouring of support from everyone back home in Olney.

“I was so grateful for all the people who came to visit me in Champaign and all the cards I received,” she said. “It helped a lot knowing everyone was thinking about me.”

After surgery, Dr. Cunningham referred Madison to Carle endocrinologist Dr. Kingsley Onyemere.

During three days of radioactive iodine treatment, healthcare providers and Madison’s family had to take special measures to stay protected from exposure. Most things she touched had to be disposable. Nurses could only come in the room for a few minutes at a time. 

Still, she kept in contact with the outside world through her phone and social media. And she watched the Chicago Cubs win the World Series.

Several months later, Madison is not out of the woods.

A genetic syndrome makes her susceptible to developing rare cancers. As a baby, she survived a rare type of kidney cancer.

Despite her struggles, Madison doesn’t believe in moping around.

“I choose to go on with my life,” she said. 

Madison graduates from Olney Central College this spring and plans to attend Eastern Illinois University, majoring in early childhood development. She and her boyfriend, Logan, are engaged and planning their August wedding, and she finds comfort in her friends, family and her faith.