‘I feel violated’: Cancer survivor speaks out after photos used for alleged cancer scam

Eldridge police say Madison Russo stole photos from Jessica Sanders to fake a cancer diagnosis
Eldridge police say Madison Russo stole photos from Jessica Sanders to fake a cancer diagnosis
Updated: Jan. 30, 2023 at 10:00 PM CST
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BETTENDORF, Iowa (KWQC) - At 20 years old, Jessica Sanders of California learned she was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer.

Sanders took a leave from college and underwent harsh chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant last year.

Throughout her treatment, she decided to document her journey on social media, saying she wanted to show people the hard truth. She also created her own t-shirts.

While she received words of encouragement, she did not expect someone to steal her photos and use them to claim a cancer diagnosis for monetary donations. However, according to Eldridge police, that is exactly what happened.

Madison Russo, 19, of Bettendorf was charged with theft after police say she received over $37,000 in donations for a false cancer claim.

Sanders has never met Russo and does not know how she found her photos.

In a statement to TV6, Sanders wrote, “I was shocked to find out someone used my images falsely for their personal gain. Survivorship is very difficult emotionally and this really hit me hard. I was very vulnerable and she exploited that, I feel violated. I am so offended that she used me and others and allegedly lied about cancer. It also appears that she gave out false information and hope about how she saved her hair during treatment. Cancer patients are vulnerable and if someone is online claiming good results, they might try it not knowing it’s all a lie. What she is accused of doing is so hurtful and offensive to anyone that went through cancer.”

Sanders is now cancer-free and studying abroad in Prague, living out one of her dreams.

But she and others say the impact this has on the cancer community is far-reaching.

Anna Tower-Kovesdi and her husband Joe, said they feel taken advantage of.

“Maddie Russo was someone who put herself front and center in the online cancer community,” Joe Tower said.

Anna was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the same type of cancer Russo claimed to have. Both she and her husband have a big following in the online cancer community. That’s how they say they came in contact with Russo.

“She was active, she engaged with other cancer survivors, and I think because she claimed to have the same diagnoses that my wife did, the blood cancer, the acute lymphoblastic leukemia, we felt a kind of connection and kinship with her,” Joe Tower said.

The Towers said they shared Russo’s platform and GoFundMe pages with their followers, hoping to pay it forward. Then, they learned of the accusations against Russo.

“Maddie took a very ostentatious route which I think is the most shocking part of this,” Joe Tower said. “I don’t think, we haven’t seen a fraud in the cancer community to this level, you know, at all.”

Anna Tower-Kovesdi is concerned this will cause other cancer patients to keep quiet about their journey.

“I feel that after this that people will be less [likely to] share their stories and I think it’s important to not just raise awareness but to give hope to other cancer patients.

She is currently in remission and is in the final phase of conventional treatment. She’s currently receiving immunotherapy and continues to do well.

Russo has not responded to multiple requests for comment.