As a competitive diver in high school and college, Madison Rylee learned how to overcome fear from the dizzying height of a 10-meter platform. But when she was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 21 in October 2016, the stakes were suddenly much higher and scarier.
Just before her diagnosis, Madison was in the midst of switching colleges, living at home and getting ready to enroll in nursing school. One morning, while getting dressed for work, she felt an unfamiliar pain in her chest, which worsened over the next two weeks. Then she noticed a lump just below her collarbone. After a series of tests that included imaging scans and blood work, Madison’s doctor sent her to a cancer specialist at a nearby hospital.
Almost certain that Madison had lymphoma, the specialist recommended that she go to Cincinnati Children’s for care.
“When I heard her say Cincinnati Children’s, it did surprise me a little bit,” Madison said. “But she explained, 'You’d be crazy not to go there – they see this type of cancer every day and will take great care of you.’ I didn’t even know until I got there that the hospital has a young adult cancer program.”
Over the next few days, the cancer team at Cincinnati Children’s ran more tests and diagnosed Madison with a rare type of cancer called primary mediastinal large B-cell Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The tumor was about the size of a fist and was wrapped around her windpipe and lungs.
Her primary cancer doctor at Cincinnati Children’s, Erin Breese, MD, PhD, explained that Madison would need six rounds of chemotherapy, starting immediately. Each round would involve a one-week hospital stay followed by a few weeks of recovery at home.
One of the most difficult “reality check” moments for Madison was when she had to sign consent forms for chemotherapy; the other was when her hair began to fall out one week into chemo.
“At first I really felt sorry for myself. I was like, I’m 21, I’ve never smoked, I work out – why me?” Madison says. “Then one night I realized I could ask that question all I wanted to, but I’d never get an answer. I just had to stay positive and fight. That mentality really got me through.”
Smiling Every Day
Multiple rounds of chemotherapy took a toll on Madison’s body. She focused on the little things that made the experience bearable: a visit from therapy dogs, a late-night conversation with a nurse, a goodie bag on Halloween, daily FaceTime calls from her younger sister, MacKenzie.
Madison reminded herself to smile every day and keep her eyes on the finish line. During her hospital stays, relationships with members of the cancer team made all the difference.
“Every day, the whole care team came into my room to talk about how I was doing and what the next steps would be,” Madison says. “They treated me like an adult and included my mom in conversations, too. I felt really involved in my treatment, and the doctors and nurses answered whatever questions I had.
"Everyone was so amazing – I could tell how much they cared about me. They learned who I was as a person, and when good things happened they would celebrate with me.”
Good news came quickly: After her second round of chemotherapy in late December, scans showed that the tumor was shrinking. In March 2017, after round six of chemotherapy, Dr. Breese said the tumor was gone.
A Gradual Recovery
Over time, Madison began to feel like herself again. In June 2017, she returned to work part-time. Two months later, she began nursing school. She started walking her dogs every day and working out at a local gym. As a runner and former diver, these were important milestones.
As Madison gained strength, she started to think about a tradition she and MacKenzie had begun a few years earlier: running in the Turkey Trot, Cincinnati’s annual Thanksgiving Day race. They decided to do it again in 2017, this time with their younger brother, Mitchell.
“I couldn’t run the entire 10 kilometers, but that’s alright,” Madison says. “I cried when I crossed the finish line, because exactly a year before that I had been in a hospital bed getting chemo. I felt like I’d accomplished a lot. Next time, I’m going to run the entire way.”