HEALTHY LIVING

What Causes Someone To Fake Cancer On The Internet?

04/23/2015 12:24 pm ET | Updated Apr 23, 2015

Belle Gibson, the Australian Instagram star who claimed diet and lifestyle changes cured her terminal cancer -- landing a book deal and an award-winning app as a result -- admitted this week that she faked her cancer diagnosis.

The 23-year-old's story unraveled after it was revealed in March she had failed to hand over some $300,000 in charitable pledges raised through her app business.

No. None of it’s true," she told The Australian Women's Weekly in an exclusive interview.

Australian media outlets note The Weekly's speculation that Gibson might suffer from a psychological disorder known as factitious syndrome, a disorder in which an individual either creates or behaves as if she has physical or emotional symptoms of an illness (the magazine has not put the full article online). Although it's difficult to estimate how many individuals have a disorder in which a primary characteristic is dishonesty, it's thought that approximately 1 percent of people admitted to hospitals suffer from factitious syndrome.

"I am still jumping between what I think I know and what is reality," Gibson told The Weekly, explaining that she had a tendency to embellish.

“If I don’t have an answer, then I will sort of theorize it myself and come up with one,” she said in the interview, which hits newsstands on April 23. “I think that’s an easy thing to often revert to if you don’t know what the answer is.”

Gibson's career as a health food media star took off after she claimed to have defied a 2009 terminal brain cancer diagnosis by eschewing chemotherapy and other cancer treatments in favor of eating whole foods. In 2014, she claimed her cancer had spread to the blood, spleen, uterus and liver.

To learn more about the condition, HuffPost Lifestyle called up Michelle Riba, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan Health System.

The Huffington Post: What's interesting to me is Belle Gibson's motive: Is she knowingly fraudulent or just confused and troubled? If she does have facititious syndrome, is this manifestation typical of the condition?

Riba: Usually people [with factitious syndrome] don’t go public with this. They are feigning illness, but it’s not to claim that they may have a cure or something like that. Usually people are just trying to exaggerate their own illness, whether physical or emotional, in themselves or somebody else. It’s tricky. A person could have factitious disorder but they could also have a chronic medical condition such as diabetes, or they could have factitious disorder and asthma, or a history of attention deficit disorder. Having factitious disorder doesn’t negate another condition. One does not mutually exclude the other.

This reminded me of the Brian Williams scandal in February, when he exaggerated an anecdote about coming under fire while reporting during the Iraq war. They share a strong probability of getting caught. Why do people lie in these circumstances?

People can even believe that they are not lying, because [they think] maybe they theoretically do have cancer, or really do have something. Is that a lie? It’s fascinating.

And really each person is unique. Their histories might be propelled by the feedback that they've gotten -- the sympathy, the accolades, the attention. It can fuel feelings of inadequacy, of trying to live up to a parent or be part of a group. To me those are the interesting things, not so much the diagnosis, per se, because we’ll never really know that unless it's made public.

What's hard for me to wrap my mind around is how extraordinary and complicated Gibson's stories were. She revealed additional diagnoses last year, for example. Given that we don't know whether or not Gibson has factitious syndrome, what could be the motivation for perpetuating and adding to the lie?

It’s begging attention and nurturing. She was getting a lot of sympathy. That would be primary. That would be an example of factitious syndrome.

I guess this turned into money for this lady, but [in smaller ways] people do this all the time. We all sort of exaggerate. A 9-year-old child gets up in the morning and says he has a stomachache and doesn't want to go to school. But if that happens every day, then that’s a problem.

You work in psycho-oncology, and provide psychiatric care to cancer patients. What impact could someone feigning cancer have on real cancer patients?

I don’t want to say real or not. There are many ways that people deal with any major condition. We have [patients] who have always thought they were going to get cancer and then, there are people who, when they have symptoms, deny it.

There are people who have chest pain and who don’t go the emergency room [because] they think it’s indigestion or muscle aches or something they ate, even though they may be having classic chest pain symptoms and a pending heart attack. Could you call that denial? Could you call that deceiving themselves? There’s a spectrum of how we can appreciate different symptoms or changes that occur in us.

The other end of it is people who love to tell their symptoms to their friends and family. You call up and say, ‘How are you?’ and the first thing they tell you is all the things that are wrong with them. Is that because people have learned they can get your attention? They need that sympathy. They crave it. They want it.

Not everything is a mental disorder.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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