TikToker who made fake cancer claims on social media avoids prison

Faker who claimed she was battling cancer and documented it on TikTok then pocketed GoFundMe donations breaks down in tears as she is ordered to pay $39,000 in restitution but avoids jail after telling court: ‘I did it to get my family together’

  • An Iowa TikToker was spared jail on Friday after she admitted to scamming $40,000 after lying about her cancer diagnosis on social media

The TikToker who scammed nearly $40,000 and earned the sympathy of millions after lying about a ‘football-sized’ tumor wrapped around her spine was spared prison time after a judge handed down a suspended sentence last week.  

Madison Russo, 20, of Bettendorf, Iowa, also lied about having leukemia and pancreatic cancer in postings on TikTok, GoFundMe, Facebook and LinkedIn. 

‘A lot of people have made speculation as to why I did this, and how somebody who looked like they had everything together could have such a mess. I didn’t do this for money or greed. I didn’t do this for attention. I did this as an attempt to get my family back together,’ Russo told the court. 

It’s estimated that over 400 people sent her donations. As part of the 10-year suspended sentence handed down Friday, she was ordered to pay $39,000 in restitution and a $1,370 fine. If she stays out of trouble for three years of probation, she’ll stay free.

Russo pleaded guilty in June to first-degree theft in a deal with prosecutors.

Her scam unraveled when medical professionals spotted discrepancies in her story online. Police subpoenaed her medical records and found she had never been diagnosed with cancer at any medical facility in the area. She was arrested in January. 

Madison Russo, an Iowa woman who falsely claimed to have cancer and documented her ‘battle’ on social media will stay out of prison after a judge gave her a suspended sentence

Russo (pictured with medical equipment) fleeced hundreds of GoFundMe donors out of $37,000 by lying that she had pancreatic cancer and a football-sized tumor on her spine

A GoFundMe account showed another $37,303 was raised. The donors have since been refunded

Russo, who claimed her medical journey started in February 2022, was outed when police obtained medical records from centers she was a patient at that all exposed she had not received any form of cancer treatment. 

Officers also found that Russo was shamelessly stealing photos from cancer patients’ social media accounts in an attempt to make her story more believable. She which she promoted her ‘cancer journey’ on Facebook and LinkedIn among other social media sites.

Russo, who also shared her story in newspapers, podcasts, talks at St. Ambrose University – where she studied – and The National Pancreatic Foundation, posted a $10,000 bail the same day she was arrested.

Police obtained a search warrant for Russo’s Bettendorf apartment where they uncovered 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 medication made out to her relative.

Russo was found to have accepted money from 439 donors, including from cancer foundations and school districts. 

A GoFundMe account showed another $37,303 was raised by January before her arrest. It appears the page has been taken down now and GoFundMe have refunded the money that was donated to her.

One donor Louis Frillman, who generously gave Russo a $500 donation, told News 8 when her lies were exposed in January: ‘My thinking is, say a prayer for this young kid, because she’s going to have a lot of terrible consequences as a result of this. 

When GoFundMe began dishing out refunds, he and many others were surprised.

‘I thought she had passed away,’ Frillman said.

Russo promoted her fake story on social media where she talked about her alleged chemo process and day-to-day symptoms

Between February and October 2022, Russo alleged she received about 15 rounds of chemotherapy and 90 rounds of radiation

 Another donor also told News 8 that the shocking scam has left them struggling to trust others who are in need of support.

‘Now I am sickened, not for my $200, but that now I have to hesitate about helping others,’ they said.

In an interview with The North Scott Press in October, Russo deceived the public by claiming her cancer journey began eight months prior when she received a call about her diagnosis while attending class at St. Ambrose University.

‘It was early in the morning, and I had been anxiously awaiting these test results,’ Russo said at the time. ‘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 fake cancer patient claimed that bloody stools, nose bleeds and fevers led her to get her labs done before her diagnosis.

When she was given her ‘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.


Between February and October 2022, Russo alleged she received about 15 rounds of chemotherapy and 90 rounds of radiation

Between February and October 2022, Russo alleged she received about 15 rounds of chemotherapy and 90 rounds of radiation. She also insisted she had a consultation with Mayo Clinic doctors. 

Despite her ‘cancer diagnosis’, she was able to achieve a 4.0 GPA, work part-time and participate in outdoor activities. 

Her ‘medical journey’ was regularly posted on social media where she often 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,’ she 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.’

Internet sleuths were quick to question Russo and pointed out 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.’

In court on Friday, Judge John Telleen declined a defense request that would have wiped the conviction off her record if she completes probation successfully. He said people who deal with her in the future should know that she once engaged in a ‘criminal scheme,’ and that ‘serious crimes must have serious consequences.’

‘Through this scheme, you deceived your friends, your family, your community, other cancer victims, charities and strangers who were motivated by your supposedly tragic story to donate to help support you,’ the judge said.

‘A lot of people have made speculation as to why I did this and how somebody who looked like they had everything together could have such a mess,’ she said. ‘I didn’t do this for money or greed. I didn’t do this for attention. I did this as an attempt to get my family back together.’

Her sentence also includes 100 hours of community service. She paid the $39,000 restitution earlier, and the money was being held by the court. 

Scott County prosecutor Kelly Cunningham recommended against prison time because Russo had no criminal history, had good grades in college, was employed and was unlikely to reoffend. 

That bothered Rhonda Miles, who runs a pancreatic cancer foundation in Nashville, Tennessee, that donated to Russo and testified at the hearing.

‘It was devastating to sit there and watch the Scott County prosecuting attorney act like a defending attorney, so that was tough,’ Miles said. ‘And I think she´ll have a lot of questions to answer from the locals on that at some point. Why were you defending this girl when you were supposed to be prosecuting?’

Russo apologized to the court and her victims, and said she wished she had sought out help regarding her family.

‘I fully acknowledge what I did was wrong. And I’m incredibly sorry,’ she said through sobs. ‘If there was anything I could do to take it back I would. The reality is I can’t.’

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