There was no reason for Maddie King to suspect that a mass of tumours had silently spread across one third of her lungs.
The super-fit 19-year-old who rarely drank, exercised religiously and never ate dairy or refined sugars was more concerned with acing her business degree at Sydney University.
So when she felt a ‘large, rubbery lump’ on the back of her neck on June 30, 2019, she could never have imagined that four months later she would be diagnosed with stage four Hodgkin’s lymphoma – the most advanced form of blood cancer.
The now 20-year-old, who swam at state level for New South Wales and trained to become a professional ballerina, is anxiously awaiting the results of gruelling chemotherapy that has robbed her of her fertility.
‘I just wish I had caught it earlier,’ she told Daily Mail Australia.
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Glamorous business student Maddie King rarely drank, never ate refined sugars and exercised religiously until doctors diagnosed her with stage four Hodgkin’s lymphoma in October 2019
To everyone who saw her, the 19-year-old looked the picture of health – so there was no reason to suspect that a mass of tumours had already covered a third of her lungs
After discovering the lump on her neck, Maddie saw a doctor who ‘did all the right things straight away’, ordering x-rays, blood tests and needle biopsies to determine the cause.
When the biopsy showed no signs of cancer, she was given a course of antibiotics for ‘walking pneumonia’ and told to monitor for changes.
Needle biopsies remove just a tiny fragment of cells and are known to return false negatives due to the minuscule size of the sample.
With the lump showing no signs of shrinking, Maddie had an entire lymph node removed for further testing, which immediately revealed the true cause of the growth on October 24, 2019.
It was only with hindsight that she recalled having night sweats and shortness of breath during workouts – both telltale signs of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
A raised lump on the left side of Maddie King’s neck (pictured) was the only physical clue that the most advanced form of lymphoma was ravaging her body
Maddie remembers feeling ‘completely numb’ until her shattered mother broke down in tears, a sight she called ‘the hardest part’ of her diagnosis.
‘I never let her come to any of my chemo sessions because I didn’t want her to see me sick like that,’ she said.
‘It meant I could cry and be a mess without having to worry about being strong for her.’
Doctors prescribed a course of gruelling BEACOPP chemotherapy, a potent cocktail of drugs that offers the best chance of destroying advanced lymphoma.
‘It was extremely tough both physically and mentally. I became really sick, tired and weak,’ Maddie said, a bitter pill to swallow for the fitness fanatic who has long used exercise as an escape from anxiety and stress.
A lifelong fitness fanatic, Maddie swam at state level for New South Wales and even trained to become a professional ballerina
Early symptoms of Hodgkin’s lymphoma
Excessive tiredness, fever, night sweats, unexplained weight loss, itchy rashes and painless swelling of lymph nodes in the neck, armpits or groin.
Source: Cancer Council Australia
Maddie is one of roughly 600 Australians diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma every year.
It is a rare disease that accounts for just 0.5 percent of all cancers diagnosed in Australia, and one most likely to occur in people aged between 15 and 25 or those over 65 years old.
But Maddie’s story stands as sobering testament that cancer can develop at any time, even in young people at the peak of their physical health.
Hodgkin’s is notoriously difficult to diagnose because symptoms are vague and easily confused with those of less sinister illnesses like bacterial or viral infections – including pneumonia, just as Maddie’s were.
Unlike cervical, breast and colon cancer, there are no screening programmes for Hodgkin’s and it cannot be diagnosed with a generic blood test, leading health organisations to label it a ‘silent killer’.
Warning signs include night sweats and painless lumps in the armpits, groin or neck – both of which Maddie experienced – as well as itchiness, fatigue, inflamed rashes and unexplained weight loss.
Maddie’s story stands as sobering testament that cancer can develop at any time, even in young people at the peak of their physical health
Maddie describes seeing her shattered mother (left) break down in tears as ‘the hardest part’ of her diagnosis
In its initial stages, most forms of lymphoma are highly treatable and associated with long-term survival, which means early intervention can be the difference between life and death.
It’s even curable at stage four when tumours have spread to organs outside the lymphatic system, as Maddie’s have.
But she has been warned there is a high risk – 15 to 20 percent – of her cancer recurring, even if she goes into remission after treatment.
While those figures are low compared to other cancers, Maddie says ‘any number higher than zero’ will keep her awake at night, worrying about the worst case scenario.
And it’s not only imagined fears weighing on her mind – there’s plenty of real ones, too.
Losing her strength and mobility during treatment was a bitter pill to swallow for the fitness fanatic who has long seen exercise as her escape from stress and anxiety
Chemotherapy has wrought irreversible damage on Maddie’s fertility, leaving her unlikely to conceive without IVF – news she says crushed her more than her diagnosis.
‘I actually didn’t cry until they said I might not be able to have kids naturally,’ she said.
‘It broke my heart, I always knew I wanted kids. Treatment has taken my fertility and so much of my femininity, I just wish I caught it earlier so that this wasn’t the case.’
For now, Maddie is in what doctors call a ‘grey area’.
Hodgkin’s lymphoma explained
Hodgkin lymphoma is a rare form of cancer that starts in a type of white blood cells called lymphocytes.
The disease begins in a lymph node, usually in the neck, then spreads through the lymphatic system from one group of lymph nodes to another.
Hodgkin lymphoma represents just 0.5 percent of all cancers diagnosed in Australia. About 11 percent of all lymphomas are types of Hodgkin lymphoma, while the remainder are non-Hodgkin.
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma may arise in lymph nodes anywhere in the body, whereas Hodgkin lymphoma typically begins in the upper body, such as the neck, chest or armpits.
Hodgkin lymphoma is often diagnosed at an early stage and is therefore considered one of the most treatable cancers.
Approximately 600 people in Australia are diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma every year, most commonly younger people aged 15 – 29 and older people over the age of 65. It is more common in men than women.
The causes of Hodgkin lymphoma remain largely unclear, but risk factors include family history – with those who have a parent or sibling who has had Hodgkin’s slightly likelier to develop the disease – certain viruses, including glandular fever and HIV, and a generally weakened immune system which can occur because of autoimmune conditions or lengthy periods taking immunosuppressant drugs.
Source: Lymphoma Australia
The tumour count in her latest scans returned higher results than expected, leaving her to wait for a follow-up scan in November to assess developments.
While Maddie has largely recovered from the effects of chemo by training her body with yoga, boxing and Pilates, she still feels bitter that cancer has stripped her of the innocence every young woman should enjoy in their early 20s.
‘At times the darkness of it all weighs really heavy on my mind,’ she said.
Being confronted with her own mortality while still in her teens has also taken a toll on her mental health.
‘It’s forced me to grow up so quickly and robbed me of those carefree years in your 20s that I’m watching all of my friends enjoy,’ she said.
‘I’ve outgrown a lot of them and find it difficult to relate to ‘normal’ problems they talk about now, which can feel really isolating.’
Since completing chemotherapy, Maddie has regained her strength by training at yoga, boxing and Pilates classes
More driven than ever, Maddie is now juggling her business studies with training to become a Pilates instructor at KX Studios in Sydney
More driven than ever, Maddie is now juggling her business studies with training to become a Pilates instructor at KX Studios in Sydney.
Eager to help others avoid what she has been through, she urged young people to educate themselves about early cancer symptoms and to ‘trust your gut’ no matter how embarrassing or insignificant changes in the body may seem.
‘There just isn’t enough awareness among young people about cancer, and alarm bells don’t go off for doctors when they present with symptoms because of their age,’ Maddie said.
‘If you suspect something is off, push the professionals until you get a proper answer because no one is going to care about your health as much as you do.’