Madison Wilson learns from her scars

“I was shocked, obviously, at first. Because 21 is such a young age to have cancer.”

by Jason W. Selby, Special to The Simpsonian

This article originally appeared in the Corydon Times-Republican and was written by Jason Selby, a Simpson College alumnus.

CORYDON, Iowa — Last June, Madison Wilson discovered she had cancer. A few weeks before that, she was in South Africa helping build a playground for orphaned children. By Christmas, she was back home in Wayne County with her family, taking a needed break from her senior year at Simpson College.

It is safe to say Wilson, 21, does not worry about boredom, except for the two weeks she must isolate herself from others for radiation treatment.

“It was out of nowhere,” Wilson said of her cancer diagnosis. “I never expected it. I had just come back from South Africa. I could tell, because I was swallowing and I could feel it there. There was a knot, and I didn’t know what was wrong. So I told my mom.”

(Photo: Jason Selby)

Wilson’s mother, Fern Wilson, is a nurse. She works in Chariton as a home health care aide.

Her mother made an appointment at Wayne County Hospital. After an ultrasound in Corydon, doctors scheduled a biopsy in Des Moines. Madison Wilson was diagnosed at with papillary thyroid cancer.

“And many appointments from that point,” Madison Wilson said. “I was shocked, obviously, at first. Because 21 is such a young age to have cancer. But I just have a lot of faith. I’m not worried, but I was at first. I think there is a reason this has happened. I think God has something big planned for me.

“It wasn’t as intense as it could’ve been. There’s a higher cure rate. [But] there is a higher chance it could come back more often. If I have it again, I’ll have to deal with it my whole life.

“It was a weird thing to deal with because I wasn’t sure how to go about telling people or reacting to the whole thing.

“It was really hard on my mom. My dad is more of the quiet type. He doesn’t know what to say, I think. How would you say something? It’s your daughter, you know. He uses prayer. He made me laugh a lot. He tries to cheer me up. He’s a humorous person.

“My mom, there’s no way she wouldn’t be there at every appointment.”

Madison Wilson had surgery to have her thyroid gland removed in July at the Cancer Treatment Center in Chicago. She stayed two weeks in the suburb of Zion, Illinois. She wanted to get it over with before her senior year at Simpson College in Indianola started.

“I, at least, got some time to heal before I went back to school,” Madison Wilson said.

But during the fall semester, Madison Wilson returned home for two weeks of radiation treatment, which she takes alone. She will have another treatment in the spring.

“I think it’s going to be for a lower dose,” Madison Wilson said. “And it won’t be for as long. I go to Des Moines for that. They give me a pill. I come home, I take the pill, and I just isolate myself.”

For the loquacious college student, this is a difficult task. Her isolation is not chosen but, for the safety of others, to protect them from a radiation treatment designed to destroy malignant cells. This hermitage is a departure from the norm. Madison Wilson has traveled to 12 different countries throughout her young life. Change is routine.

While in radiation, Madison Wilson wrote an article about her brush with cancer for Simpson College’s newspaper, which reappeared in the Times-Republican last month.

“I felt like I needed to say something,” Madison Wilson said. “I got the urge to write it. People go through hard things every day, like losing someone you’re very close to. I think my experience, and my positive outlook on this is telling others it can always be worse. By the end of this, none of this stuff on earth is going to matter. All the stuff that’s happening now, one day is just going to be gone. Keeping your head up, knowing everything’s going to be OK, and God has a reason for everything. I think that’s what I can teach to others. I just want to be a light for others.

“I love writing about other people. I love sharing their stories. Especially when they’re so inspirational and life changing. I mainly right about other people. I never write about myself. So that was a huge change as a journalist.

“My parents have supported me a lot. I’ve had a huge support system. Even just at Simpson, I’m in a sorority [Kappa Kappa Gamma]. They threw me a welcome home party.

“Just the whole Corydon community. I have a lot of family that live here. Even my high school class, I hadn’t talked to since I’ve gone off to college because you kind of lose those connections. They showed up at my house with flowers and a card. They’re still there for you.

“I loved Wayne. I had a really good high school experience, and I made a lot of relationships with the teachers.

“Mrs. Dorene McCart, when I was going through radiation, I had to go on a diet beforehand. So she made me a bunch of bread rolls that didn’t have a certain ingredient in it I wasn’t supposed to eat. She was one of my favorite teachers when I was in high school.”

McCart teaches family and consumer sciences at Wayne.

Madison Wilson’s older brother, Cody Wilson, is a member of the United States Air Force, living in Fort Collins, Colorado. This is their father’s last year teaching English and drama at Wayne Community High School, and then their parents will move to Colorado next summer to be closer to their son. Madison Wilson foresees herself moving to Colorado, eventually.

“It’s a beautiful place, and there’s so much to do there,” Madison Wilson said.

Madison Wilson is double majoring in English and multimedia journalism. She originally wanted to be a high school English teacher like her father.

“I changed my mind,” Madison Wilson said. “And I started taking journalism classes, and I really loved them. My long-term goal is to be a communications and media studies professor, so I want to earn my doctorate degree one day. I’d like to get video production experience first before I teach. I’d like to take two or three years before I go to grad school.

“I need money, too,” Madison Wilson added with a laugh.

She plans on graduating on time in May 2017. She hopes to become a leadership consultant for her sorority and travel around the United States and Canada.

“It’s a good closure thing for me, because I love college, and I don’t want to leave.”

Madison Wilson enjoys writing poetry and creative nonfiction in her spare time. She wrote a 25-page essay for her senior project about how early journalistic experiences and interviews have helped her through her own ordeal with cancer.

“That was a cool thing to reflect on,” Madison Wilson said. “[To] realize these people I’ve talked to who’ve lost a loved one or has cerebral palsy [or] hit somebody while they were texting and driving and how they reacted helped me through my experience.

“I realized it’d be cool to tell the truth in a creative way.”

Pullquote Photo

I do think there’s a reason for it. God’s teaching me something along the way.”

— Madison Wilson

Writing is how Madison Wilson reflects on the moment.

Before she was diagnosed with cancer, Madison Wilson traveled to South Africa to the city of Welkom, where she spent three weeks.

“I definitely got a completely new perspective on life,” Madison Wilson said. “I think that was God’s way of setting me up for what was about to happen in my own life.

“Just seeing these orphans, they have each other, but they don’t have a lot. That’s all they know.

“We did a lot of construction work there. We helped build new things on their playground. We had church with them. We did Bible studies. I feel like I got closer to God on that trip. I didn’t feel sick. I felt great.

“I feel like if I hadn’t gone on that trip, I would’ve been really depressed and down about this whole situation. It’s kind of funny how you know you need to be somewhere. [God] provided the money for me that I didn’t think I’d be able to raise in time.”

Within a few weeks after returning from South Africa, Madison Wilson discovered she had cancer. Doctors estimated the tumor had been growing for over a year.

“You could tell the left side of my neck was enlarged,” Madison Wilson said. “That’s when we knew something was off.”

Despite everything, it still does not seem real to her.

“My main challenge through the whole thing is staying motivated during school,” Madison Wilson said. “Because I’m tired all the time. When you have a bunch of homework you don’t want to do, I just want to stay in bed all day. I have no motivation. Sometimes, I get kind of depressed.

“Then the next day, I’m happy. It’s just back and forth. That has a lot to do with the medicine they gave me because that’s my hormones.”

Functions of the thyroid gland include producing adrenaline and dopamine and regulating metabolism. Madison Wilson must now adjust her diet and take medication to maintain energy as well as to control emotional and physical responses, such as fear and excitement.

Madison Wilson can never be sure whether low energy or depression might be the result of her eight-hour surgery, which removed her thyroid, two parathyroid glands and 11 lymph nodes along with the tumor.

“I think it’s kind of cool,” Madison Wilson said of the line of incision across the bottom of her neck. “I like scars. It’s, obviously, not for a good reason, but I don’t look in the mirror and think anything of it, really. It does remind me. But it doesn’t get me down when I see it.

“It’s definitely strengthened my relationship with God. I’ve always been very faithful, but I feel like my faith has gotten even stronger since this has happened. At first I asked, ‘Why has this happened? I don’t understand this.’ But I do think there’s a reason for it. God’s teaching me something along the way.”