An Iowa woman was charged after allegedly scamming $37,000 from donors by lying that she has cancer and a tumor the size of a football on her spine.
Madison Marie Russo, 19, was arrested on January 23 after medical professionals reported she was faking a stage 2 cancer diagnosis by pointing out the irregularities of cords and tubes in her ‘chemo’ TikTok videos.
Russo claimed she had pancreatic cancer and acute lymphoblastic leukemia – along with a ‘football-sized’ tumor on her lower back and spine.
Police obtained medical records from centers where she was a patient that all revealed she was never treated for cancer or tumors, according to KWQC. Authorities also discovered that Russo was stealing photos from cancer patients’ social media and using them as her own.
She posted her bail for $10,000 on the same day she was arrested.
Madison Marie Russo, 19, allegedly lied about her stage 2 cancer diagnosis. She was arrested last week after medical professionals pointed out the irregularities of cords and tubes in her ‘chemo’ TikTok videos
Police obtained medical records from centers where she was a patient that all revealed she was never treated for cancer or tumors
Police obtained a search warrant for Russo’s Bettendorf apartment where they found a brown paper bag with medical supplies, an IV pole with a cotton ball filled pump, boxes of transparent dressing, wigs and a prescription for nausea made out to her relative, according to KWQC.
Authorities uncovered Russo accepted money from 439 donors, including from cancer foundations and school districts. A GoFundMe account showed another $37,303 was raised by January 19.
Russo’s claimed her alleged medical journey started in February 2022 when she got a call about her diagnosis while attending class at St. Ambrose University, she told The North Scott Press in October.
‘It was early in the morning, and I had been anxiously awaiting these test results,’ Russo said. ‘My phone rang, and it said, “Iowa City Oncology.” I stepped out of the classroom and took the call.
‘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.’
The alleged cancer patient claimed that bloody stools, nose bleeds and fevers sent her to get her labs done before her diagnosis.
When she got the diagnosis, she said doctors had given her an 11 percent survival rate for five years.
‘I remember hanging up the phone, and I was a mess,’ she said. ‘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.’
At the time, Russo claimed doctors insisted surgery wasn’t a possibility to remove her ‘football-sized’ tumor. They called it ‘more risk than reward,’ Russo said.
A GoFundMe account showed another $37,303 was raised by January 19. Authorities uncovered Russo accepted money from 439 donors, including from cancer foundations and school districts
Between February and October 2022, Russo alleged she received about 15 rounds of chemotherapy and 90 rounds of radiation, the news outlet reported. She also insisted she had a consultation with Mayo Clinic doctors.
‘Life has been crazy,’ she said. ‘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.’
Despite Russo’s ‘cancer diagnosis’, she was able to achieve a 4.0 GPA, work part-time and participate in outdoor activities.
Between February and October 2022, Russo alleged she received about 15 rounds of chemotherapy and 90 rounds of radiation
Russo’s ‘medical journey’ was regularly posted on social media where she talked about her alleged chemo process and day-to-day symptoms.
‘It’s days like these that are hard,’ Russo said in a previous video. ‘I just have different mixed emotions, and with my hair – and stuff like that’s obviously a big fear – obviously as a girl… hair is a big part of everybody’s lives, but to think of the potential of using it, it’s just one more thing… hopefully nothing else falls out.’
In a separate video, Russo explained that she had a rough week after chemo but wasn’t feeling sick.
‘It’s kind of been a little eventful week,’ Russo said. ‘In the cancer world, eventful is not good. I’d rather have an uneventful week because it means you’re kind of coasting along.
‘So I’ve had a little bump in the road. It’s my week off chemo, so I’ve been just doing radiation. However, I kind of came down with this fever. This one is really weird cause I don’t feel, like, sick. I don’t really have, like, cold or, like, sore throat, any of the other symptoms…Just kind of like that feeling of being run down.’
Russo explained that she got lab tests back showing a low white blood count that likely occurred due to just getting done with chemo.
Russo’s ‘medical journey’ was regularly posted on social media where she talked about her alleged chemo process and day-to-day symptoms
Police revealed Russo’s footage of her treatment ‘inside’ a medical office was also taken in her apartment.
Donors were shocked to hear about Russo’s arrests after unknowingly contributing to her scheme.
‘I didn’t really have words when my friend sent me the link and said “hey didn’t you donate to this?”‘ an unidentified donor told KWQC. ‘I didn’t donate that much but you do what you can and you’re just shocked.’
GoFundMe administrators sent out a notice to Russo’s donors claiming they would get there money back in up to seven business days.
Internet sleuths were quick to criticize Russo and find her hidden mistakes in several of her videos.
One TikToker posted a photo of Russo smiling while connected to a gastrostomy tube that pointed out was too far up her nose and a ‘chest port’ was was wrongly applied.
‘What is going on with that chest port,’ one person said in response to the photo on TikTok. ‘I’m not a chemo nurse but this does not look like a port to me. The dressing is really screwed up.’
Another TikToker grabbed her son’s old gastrostomy tube and attempted to stick it far up her nose like Russo.
‘Definitely not comfortable,’ she said while adding in the caption, ‘my nose hurt after doing that.’
Russo is set to be arraigned on March 2.