Painful Truth: Belle and the Baron Muchausen

On people who fake cancer (and other diseases) for fun and profit.

There are diseases, and then there are diseases.

As we come up to the annual Terry Fox Runs that will be held here and around the world, we remember again people who have had cancer, both those who survived and those who didn’t.

Cancer is a trip to hell and back, for those diagnosed and for their families. So nothing induces rage and confusion quite as much as the people who fake cancer for fun and profit.

Earlier this year we saw the case of Australian Belle Gibson, a brave 26-year-old survivor of brain cancer, who had rejuvenated herself with “alternative therapies,” organic foods, and “love.”

Nice as it would be to believe, not a single fact in the above paragraph is true. Not even the woman’s name, possibly, nor her age.

Gibson was on the verge of creating a miniature media empire in early 2015. Her 2013 Full Pantry app and cookbook had been wildly popular, as well as profitable. They were both based on her story, which included not just cancer, but two cardiac arrests, multiple surgeries, and dying on the operating table.

In fact, her tall tales of horrific medical conditions go back all the way to her teenage years, when she started posting tall tales online.

In this, Gibson, who was actually 23 when her story crumbled this year, is not alone.

It’s been 15 years since a doctor coined the term “Munchausen by internet.”

Munchausen’s syndrome is the name for those people who turn up at hospitals and doctor’s offices repeatedly, telling of terrible symptoms and often embellished with horrifying and dramatic personal histories. In reality, nothing is wrong with them. And unlike hypochondriacs, who really believe they are ill, people with Muchausen’s syndrome know they are well. They seemingly just want attention.

The most horrific offshoot of Muchausen’s is Munchausen by proxy, in which the schemer will claim a child or other loved one is sick instead. In extreme cases, they will actually poison or injure the child to give the story some basis in reality.

Munchausen by internet is in many ways the simplest form, and the only one in which the perpetrator can assume every role needed in the drama.

Thanks for discussion forums, Facebook, and the full panoply of social media, people can create an entire identity, plus supporting roles such as parents, siblings, spouses, and doctors. The outpouring of sympathy after the “victim” shares the diagnosis is immediate, and that may be enough. Some cases have resulted in no more than a great deal of drama, with the victim often “dying” at the end of a long battle filled with hospital visits, dreadful diagnoses, and miraculous but brief recoveries.

Some are more nefarious. Ashley Kirilow of Ontario may have started looking for attention, but she took her fakery into the real world, and got real cash. In 2009 and 2010, Kirilow collected donations while dieting, shaving her head, and plucking her eyebrows to simulate chemotherapy. She collected an estimated $29,000 and a trip to Disneyland from the deal, before she was caught and tried.

Belle Gibson was Kirilow on steroids, a more successful, more international, more media-friendly version of the same scheme. She never had cancer, but in recent months she’s claimed that, of course, she was the victim, falsely diagnosed by a quack, victim of someone else’s schemes. Of course, no one can find the mysterious man who caused her all this terrible, lucrative trouble.



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