Madison McIntyre carefully sequences plasma samples from people with different stages of osteoarthritis (OA).
It's a big part of her job as a lab technician in Dr. Mohit Kapoor's arthritis lab at the Krembil Research Institute, the research arm of Toronto Western Hospital, where scientists focus on new treatments for chronic diseases affecting the brain, spine, eyes, bones and joints.
"I have to admit, I didn't know much about OA when I started, like how it happens, or why it gets worse," she says. "I've already learned more than I have in my whole life!"
But Madison's path to working in a research lab was an unexpected one.
In 2011, she was a typical teen living in Ingersoll, Ont., hanging out with friends and playing hockey and basketball, when she started to experience pain in her knee.
Due to her young age and her affinity for competitive sports, Madison and her family initially chalked it up to growing pains. But over time, the pain worsened.
Same type of bone cancer as Terry Fox
"It got so bad, I couldn't sleep, I wasn't eating, my grades dropped because I wasn't paying attention in class, I couldn't even go on my tippy toes, it was so painful," she remembers.
"I just knew something was wrong."
A week before her 16th birthday, Madison was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, the same type of bone cancer as Canadian athlete and Marathon of Hope runner Terry Fox. Osteosarcoma most often strikes before the age of 25 and mainly affects young men.
In January 2012, doctors at The Hospital for Sick Children removed a five-centimetre by seven-centimetre tumour from Madison's right knee, taking out much of the knee itself (leaving the kneecap) and part of her tibia, in order to insert a metal rod in its place. Doctors also removed a portion of Madison's calf muscle, then flipped it up and over the knee as a barrier between the skin and the metal.
Madison had an intensive course of treatment, including 11 rounds of chemotherapy before her surgery, and another 11 rounds after.
She was bedridden for six months, too weak and exhausted to even read a book. Her mother, a real estate agent and her father, a pilot, took shifts to keep an eye on her. They worried about the toll that not only the cancer had taken on Madison, but also her recovery.
"It was rough, I was so depressed," she recalls. "Learning to walk again was a struggle. I had no energy to do physio. I knew my window was short, but I just couldn't do it."
Once the treatment finished, Madison gave herself two weeks to build up her energy, then began physio three times a week. In just one month, she was up walking again; her family and friends were shocked – and relieved. And though Madison couldn't return to competitive sports, within a year, she was back to skating, rollerblading and her favourite activity, horseback riding.
Madison admits her experience as a patient not only changed her life, it also altered her career path. "I thought I would be a video game designer!" she laughs.
Instead, she graduated with a Biotechnology Advanced degree from Sir Sanford Fleming College in Peterborough. The course focuses on lab-based skill sets, such as RNA and DNA processing and basic wet lab procedures.
"Madison has mastered several complex molecular biology procedures in the lab, including sequencing. She is here early, and she stays late when she needs to, always putting in the extra effort," says Dr. Amanda Ali, a post-doctoral researcher in the Kapoor lab.
"She is the most diligent person I have trained, and it is obvious that she cares deeply about her work."
For Madison, this is much more than a job. It's a mission.
'They've been great, so supportive'
"I know there are other people out there suffering, not just from cancer but from arthritis too. I know how bad it can be," she says. "I mean, people feel better after a knee replacement, but what if you never have to get that knee replacement in the first place?
"That's what pushes me to help do this research."
Madison is now 23 and cancer free, but she is still dealing with lingering effects from her surgeries. Just a month after she started at Krembil, Madison had to have a kneecap replacement due to cartilage loss resulting from severe arthritis in her knee.
"I started my placement and then I was out for four weeks and I was like, 'No, I have to go back!'" she recalls. "They've been great, so supportive."
Madison hopes one day to move into cancer research, but for now, she is enjoying learning the ropes from a team she admires.
"As long as I'm working hard, doing the work I'm supposed to do, getting the results I'm supposed to get, I don't see a limit to what I can achieve," she says, smiling.
"You never stop learning, especially in an environment like this. I'm just so happy to be here."