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This woman is living with terminal cancer. She's documenting her story on TikTok.

Madison Baloy was a normal twenty-something a year ago. A kindergarten teacher in Tampa, Florida, with a steady boyfriend, a penchant for partying at concerts and a positive outlook on life.

Then, a terminal cancer diagnosis set her life on a dizzying, dire trajectory – but one that hasn't stopped the now 26-year-old from grocery shopping, traveling and sharing all of life's ups and downs on TikTok, including crossing items off her bucket list.

Baloy has simultaneously been chronicling her chemotherapy journey. Always a fan of content creation, she couldn't break through on the platform. Until now.

"I wasn't seeing anybody on the app with this super advanced cancer at such a young age," she says. "And so I was like, 'OK, I want to get on here and start showing stuff.'"

It makes sense people with terminal illnesses would turn to social media to express themselves or share their final wishes, experts say. Just as it makes sense for Baloy to live life on her own terms while she still can.

Madison Baloy was a normal 25-year-old a year ago. A kindergarten teacher, with a steady boyfriend, a penchant for partying at concerts, a positive outlook on life. Then, a terminal cancer diagnosis set her life on a dizzying, dire trajectory.
Madison Baloy was a normal 25-year-old a year ago. A kindergarten teacher, with a steady boyfriend, a penchant for partying at concerts, a positive outlook on life. Then, a terminal cancer diagnosis set her life on a dizzying, dire trajectory.

'I was sweating and I couldn't stop dry heaving'

The first sign of trouble crept in at the music festival Bonnaroo in June 2022 – when that impending doom feeling sank down into the pit of her stomach, and she knew she needed a bathroom. She sprinted there, and nothing. "That was weird," she thought to herself. You know, she'd been drinking. Probably just dehydrated. A hot summer day.

But the cramps in her stomach, the fatigue and depression – all easily explained away – never abated for long. And why take a sick day to check things out when it came from the same bank as her vacation days? Baloy never saw a doctor. "I convinced myself that it was anything and everything else," she says: a gluten intolerance, Crohn's, IBS. She could still live her life normally, just with random bouts of pain.

Until Feb. 22, 2023. She was teaching and the nausea and exhaustion were unrelenting.

"My sensory perception all fell through," she says. "Lights were too bright, everything was too loud causing pain and ringing in my head, I was sweating and I couldn’t stop dry heaving."

She went home early; a lot of her students were out sick with the stomach bug, it must have been that. Her boyfriend took her to urgent care. They weighed her. She hadn't realized she lost 40 to 50 pounds over nine months.

Madison Baloy couldn't find people like her on TikTok.
Madison Baloy couldn't find people like her on TikTok.

The provider at urgent care startled her. "I think you have cancer, you need to go to the ER." It's good she did: She needed emergency surgery to remove something crushing or squishing her intestine. That's when they found her stage 4 colon cancer.

TikTok and cancer virality

Amid the horrific diagnosis, Baloy turned to her TikTok app. She couldn't find people like her.

So she started filming her journey.

"Social networking sites, like TikTok, address the fundamental human need of social connection, expression and validation," says Chase Cassine, licensed clinical social worker. "As humans, we are hard-wired for social connections with others for survival, in the same way that we need food and water."

A video of her getting a tattoo on her shaved head got more than 1 million likes. But why, exactly? "People were really just drawn to the fact that I, other than my bald head, I look and seem like a very average woman in her 20s," Baloy posits.

Not that she hasn't had her struggles. "I was really scared that people were only going to see me for cancer and forget who I was," she says. She wanted to show the world that "I am still very much a person."

Baloy wants to change the conversation around cancer – on that tattoo video, for example, many comments revealed ignorance. People didn't know cancer patients like Baloy could get tattoos. Ironically, "there's not enough discourse surrounding cancer and real-life cancer because if there was, I don't think this is, kind of the traction that I would be getting," she says.

That fits general thinking around death: "While we all know we're going to die eventually, most of us don't want to think about it," says Amy Morin, psychotherapist, author of "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do" and the host of a podcast. "But we are curious to know how we'd respond if diagnosed with a terminal illness. If we had a short timeline, what sorts of things would be most important to us? What about our lives would actually matter the most? How would we want to spend our time?"

Yes, Baloy has terminal cancer and receives bad medical news; doctors told her she had five years to live. But she also is a person in her 20s trying to figure out her life, which doesn't mean she's camped out at home – something she and her mom don't quite see eye to eye on.

"My mom, obviously she cares. And she loves me. And says she wants to keep me safe. But then I'm kind of in this position where I'm old enough to make my own choices, and still able-bodied enough that I don't need to just stay on my couch and watch movies and eat chicken soup," she says.

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What the future holds

Baloy's life may include cancer forever. "So whether I only live five years or if somehow I live 70 years, I will, at some point die with cancer in my body still," she says. With colorectal cancer in particular, "most people think that there still is some level of cancer in all patients who are in remission for stage 4 colorectal cancer, and patients undergo surveillance in a much different way than the normal population," says Dr. William Dahut, chief scientific officer for the American Cancer Society.

That said: "Patients can go into complete remission for stage 4 cancer," Dahut adds. "Patients almost always do relapse, although there are rare patients whose relapse occurs very, very late or potentially not all."

Before Baloy dies, she has many items on her bucket list: to paint something cool, to be in a DJ booth at a music festival, to meet Gordon Ramsay (the last of which she just accomplished).

"Viewing the bucket lists of terminal people on social media gives us some insight into what matters to someone at the end of their lives," Morin says. "It's a way for us to learn about life without having to face our own mortality."

Madison Baloy was a normal twenty-something a year ago. And she still is.

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Important: At 25 she found out she had the breast cancer gene. Now, she's grieving motherhood.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Terminal colon cancer patient speaks out on TikTok, still lives life