Madison went to hospital in excruciating pain. Doctors threatened to send her to the psych ward.

Madison Purkis isn't the only patient — particularly female patient — to have her pain ignored. And ultimately, when this happens, the consequences can be life-threatening. 

"Here in Australia we have an amazing public health system, but you need a doctor to listen to you and diagnose you to have access to any of that. I was told my pain was all in my head," she tells Mamamia.

Watch In Her Shoes: Lea's cancer story. Post continues below.

Video via Mamamia.

While studying at university and living on campus in Canberra in March 2022, Madison felt like something wasn't right with her health.

"It was mind-piercing pain. Every few months I would have these week-long episodes of the most insane back pain. It limited my ability to work and study," she notes.

The bout of serious pain had also coincided with "quite a traumatic event" in Madison's life.

"When I went to doctors for health advice, they immediately chalked it up to being related to the traumatic incident that I had just incurred. They assumed it was the result of PTSD. I begged doctors and physios for help only to be told that what I was experiencing was psychosomatic. I was put on a nine-month waiting list to see a psychologist and sent home with a Valium prescription. 


"In retrospect I think it's the modern equivalent of a hysteria diagnosis."

Madison sought multiple opinions, seeing a range of different physicians, GPs, nurses and physios.

She would often end up in the emergency department of the local hospital, due to the severity of the pain. The waiting times were long, and her pain was rarely, if ever, taken seriously. 

"They immediately chalked it up to being mental health and I was never properly assessed. I never got a blood test, I was given no scans at the hospitals. Nothing. There was one particularly bad incident where the consultant saw a bump on my back. He pressed it and I fell to my knees crying in pain. He told me to get up because I was being 'too sensitive'. He later said that if I came back to the hospital, they would admit me into the psych ward."

After another bad pain episode that happened to coincide with her parents making the trip to Canberra to visit her, Madison agreed to go see her beloved family GP in Albury.

After a simple blood test in September 2023, the GP could see there was something quite wrong, so he sent Madison to their town's emergency department for a CT, then an MRI and later a biopsy.

"I knew something was wrong when regional healthcare was quite efficient. A few days later the results were back and I received a specific cancer diagnosis of Ewing's Sarcoma. It was a soft tissue cancer growing out of my hip and up my spine," says Madison.


The cancer had been putting pressure on Madison's spinal cord, resulting in extremely intense pressure that spread throughout her whole body. She was 20 years old at the time of the diagnosis.

It also took time to wrap her head around the fact she had cancer, as the doctors at the hospital hadn't used the word 'cancer' but a more specific term of sarcoma instead — a term Madison was not familiar with. Her mother, who is a pharmacist, had to explain it to her.

"It sounds weird to say this, but I feel so thankful for that cancer diagnosis because it felt like someone was finally listening to me," she told Mamamia. I could get help now."

Madison today. Image: Supplied.


The next step was treatment. Madison's cancer was rare, so she was sent to Melbourne's leading oncology hub Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

"Treatment has actually been the best part of this whole process. It's been at Peter Mac and I underwent radiation and chemotherapy. I remember being stressed about how I could afford housing in Melbourne while getting treatment. I got a call from my now social worker, telling me about how the Sony Foundation had offered their support and would help me throughout my treatment by providing me and my family with free apartment accommodation in Melbourne," she says.

"There's so many health equity issues for regional and rural patients. I'm so grateful to have been given access to this service. I just wish the system was more universal in the first place."

The Sony Foundation's You Can Stay program allows regional youth cancer patients who must travel to city hospitals for life saving treatment a place to stay at no cost.

Madison was also able to access the Sony Foundation's You Can Centre in Melbourne. There are five You Can Centres across Australia — spaces in hospitals dedicated for teenagers and young adults with cancer. It was a place Madison found refuge, support and activities to keep her feeling hopeful and engaged.


For the past year, Madison has been solely focused on getting through this cancer journey. Just this month she finished her final round of chemo.

"I will have scans every three months for the next 12 months. If it doesn't come back, then I get remission status at the end of that 13 months. I'm feeling excited for my future. I'm looking to travel to Germany for a holiday and spend time with friends and family," says the 20-year-old.

Now, with the time and energy to reflect, she wants to make noise about the need for patients to have their pain validated. Those doctors who had threatened to place her in a psychiatric facility had ultimately failed her.

"Throughout history, the medical industry has ignored women's pain and women's problems. It happens to this day in many different ways," she notes.

As a society, we've heard countless stories from countless women, whether related to endometriosis, birthing, chronic pain or any other of a plethora of conditions. What Madison wants people to know is this: you know your health better than anyone else. And it's important to advocate for yourself, as much as you can.

"My oncologist often says to me that we know our bodies more than we give ourselves credit for. There's a lot of gaslighting that happens to women generally. There's a lot of power in sitting in what you're feeling, trusting your gut and doing something."

Feature Image: Supplied.