Faking illness has been around forever, but the Internet has ushered in new ways to seek attention, and to add convincing flourishes to the stories. These posers are few in number, but the trail of devastation they leave is huge.
Real cancer patients and survivors like myself can not fathom such bizarre behavior.
I’d love to wake up one morning and find out my diagnosis was just a bad dream, or a mistake at the lab. Most of us would give up every gift, every sympathetic gesture, every new friend if we could just return to the lives we had before cancer.
To feel whole and vigorous again, to put death back into the mañana category — these seem like a distant, beautiful dream. Why would anyone willingly jump into the muck of cancer, even in jest?
But they do. Especially women, it turns out.
In Seattle’s alternative weekly The Stranger, Cienna Madrid reports on a 36-year-old patient with aggressive breast cancer that blew her world apart.
For community and support, she turned to the Web. She blogged about her illness and joined online support groups. That’s how she crossed paths with a young woman impersonating a cancer patient.
Three young women, in fact. They were more or less the same age — about 20 — and they all went to extraordinary lengths to buttress their tales of cancer, one even acquiring an oxygen tank and making a video.
They presumably suffered from Munchausen syndrome (which affects women disproportionately) or perhaps Munchausen by Internet, a new phenomenon that some experts would like to see included in the next edition of the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).
One study links the syndrome to narcissistic and/or sadistic personalities. The perpetrators easily fool their victims because humans fill in the details unconsciously, based on what they hope to be true. Palm readers and fortune tellers use the same technique on their customers.
But why are the cancer fakers so often women instead of men? I asked Harriet Lerner, psychologist and author of “The Dance of Anger,” about Munchausen and gender.
“Deception is a survival skill for humans and all other species,” Lerner responded. “I believe in some cases there is an element of turning ‘passive into active’ behind the story-telling.
“That is, the person who builds community and sympathy with lies about her body/suffering, may be unconsciously attempting to bind a much earlier legitimate rage — a rage from back when she had a real and terrible truth to tell and did not have the language to tell it, or the consequences of telling were too great, or she did tell and she was not heard or believed.
“When this history underlies the syndrome, it’s more a female story than a male one, (females are more on the receiving end of bodily harm, are more vulnerable to this, and to being disbelieved by authorities) just as it is more a female story to seek connection and community.”
Men may go it alone, but women will seek each other when cancer takes them on an unwanted journey. Those fellow travelers can mean a lot, as survivor Donna M. LaVerde discovered when her friends began to die.
As for the breast cancer patient in Madrid’s story, she’s still angry with the women who deceived her, but she’s trying to move on. Her mastectomy is done. Her skin is not so pale, and her red hair is growing back. She shut down her blog and made steps toward returning to normal life, to being “someone other than a cancer patient caught mid-waltz with Death.”
The waltz itself changes you, even if you’re lucky enough to slip away, for a little while. I’m 11 years out from my diagnosis of stage III ovarian cancer. In the beginning, I too sought community online. I helped a few friends, hurt a few others. Eventually I drifted away, back to a life I hardly recognized, because I was so different. I still think of those women who helped me through.
People traumatized by cancer won’t necessarily have the strength or objectivity to help you carry your burdens. Survivors usually mean well, but there’s a big difference between a group of women exchanging tips on breast-feeding and a group of women who are exhausted, who are living in pain, who are terrified they’re going to die before their kids reach a plateau.
The affection and laughter you do see in cancer support groups shows how determined women are to make this terrible experience a little less lonely. And what’s a few liars in the face of all that?
Donna Trussell is a Texas-born writer living in Kansas City. Follow her on Twitter @donnatrussell.