Another attractive young woman claims to be curing her cancer with food. Alyx Gorman takes a long hard look at why cancer sufferers are falling for lies.
Belle Gibson has been called a lot of things since she launched her app – The Whole Pantry – in 2013. She has been called a guru, an inspiration and a survivor.
The Whole Pantry is one of the iTunes stores’ most popular nutrition applications. So great is the excitement around it, in 2014 Apple announced that it was one of the select few Apps that would be made available on the first ever Apple Watch. And there’s no doubt that such a deal would be immensely lucrative for the app creator who, in this case, was Belle Gibson.
It is likely that many of those who have downloaded Gibson’s app are not aware of the story behind it. So here it is: in 2009, Gibson was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She was given months to live. Chemotherapy wasn’t working, so she decided to try something more natural. She cut gluten, dairy and GMO products from her diet, and as the “months to live” turned into years, this lifestyle change inspired her to create The Whole Pantry.
A print version of The Whole Pantry was also published in early 2014. During publicity tours for the book – published by Penguin – Belle Gibson repeatedly told thousands of hopeful and desperate readers and viewers the tale of how she beat cancer with food.
In 2014, tragedy struck again for Belle Gibson. She announced via Instagram (a platform on which she has 197,000 followers) “With frustration and ache in my heart … it hurts me to find space tonight to let you all know with love and strength that I’ve been diagnosed with a third and forth (sic) cancer.”
Except, it turns out, she didn’t. The Australian have reported today that these secondary and primary cancers in her “blood, spleen, brain, uterus, and liver,” were in fact, the result of a “misdiagnosis”, by a doctor she refuses to name.
Journalist Richard Guillaitt from The Australian did some investigation into Gibson’s past, and discovered glaring discrepancies in her personal narrative, from the language she used to describe her first diagnosis a “stage two malignant tumour of the brain” (brain tumours are classified in grades, not stages), to her age – she claimed she was 20 when she was diagnosed in 2009, but records show her date of birth is 1991.
These revelations come just days after Fairfax reported that Gibson failed to donate the proceeds of two charity drives she held, in 2013 and 2014.
Gibson is on social media lockdown. She’s switched her Instagram to private, and The Whole Pantry app have distanced themselves from her, describing her as a “previous Managing Director”.
Now, Gibson is being called many new names – “fraud”, “liar”, “hoax” and “thief”.
Perhaps it will emerge that Gibson is suffering from a severe illness that is not purely psychological. But the fact that she is still alive is a very strong case against the presence of a malignant tumour in her brain.
It was only two weeks ago that another young, blonde, beautiful cancer warrior Jessica Ainscough died of epithelioid sarcoma. Ainscough famously rejected conventional medicine for several years in favour of Gerson Therapy – a treatment the Cancer Council strongly states is not effective.
In a release to the press, Ainscough’s family stated: “In the final 12 months of her life, Jess continued her dedicated quest to search for treatment options despite being told that her disease was terminal almost seven years earlier… It has been speculated by people who have never met or treated Jess that, had she chosen to amputate her arm or undergo further conventional treatment, her chances of survival would have increased. Her treating oncologists do not agree with this uninformed view. It has also been said that Jess shunned conventional treatment and doctors, this too is incorrect.”
However, conventional medicine was not what Ainscough discussed on her blog, and it is not what won her a large and fanatical following. It was her dedication to a green-smoothie heavy, alcohol-free, vegan diet and wholesome lifestyle that fascinated her fans. It was the idea that healthy living could save your life. Tragically, in Ainscough’s case, it could not.
The biggest problem with the Gibson revelations is not that she may be pretending to have cancer – sick and weird though that may be – if it is the case. It’s that she’s pretending to have a cure for cancer.
To be diagnosed with cancer is to be placed in a desperate situation. Unfortunately, it is in the nature of some to prey on the desperate, and that is exactly what those who claim to offer an ‘alternative’ cure for cancer are: predators.
If Australians were regularly being eaten by tigers, we would probably expect the Government to do something about it. At first, we might think that killing all the tigers is the most effective solution. That’s certainly how I felt this morning, when I posted on my Facebook that I hoped Belle Gibson goes to prison.
But, after a pointed comment from my father, I realised that, if people are being eaten by tigers, it is not just the fault of the tigers. It’s the fault of a system that fails to keep the tigers out.
Let me give you some context:
In a country largely untroubled by war and famine, a cancer diagnosis is one of the worst things that can happen to a family. Cancer is ominous, terrifying and the mechanics of the damage it wreaks upon its victims are extremely difficult to understand without an extremely solid background in medicine.
When you are diagnosed with cancer, especially terminal cancer, you are told your days are numbered. But you are not told what that number is, and you are told that it is subject to change at any moment. To live with cancer is to live with morbid uncertainty.
Even if you are diagnosed with a “good” kind of cancer, the kind that has high rates of remission, you will quickly learn that no one comes out of a fight with cancer unchanged.
Chemotherapy is poisonous – and obvious side effects like vomiting and nausea are only the beginning. It can strip your stomach of its lining, it can give you nerve damage. Radiation therapy can literally cause other kinds of cancer. And then there’s surgery, the literal cutting away of parts of your body – albeit parts that have turned on you. The horror of that should speak for itself.
These treatments are brutal, but they are also the only thing that works. Cancer gives you two choices: fight or die. Right now, our healthcare system does not have the resources to fully support patients with either of these choices.
Being a cancer patient is a complicated full-time job that requires a high level of literacy and great organisational skills. If you are affluent, your ‘cancer journey’ is very likely to be filled with many better options than if you have limited finances. You can doctor-shop within conventional medicine. You can be more picky about which hospital bed you’ll sleep in, and you can pay people to care for you, physically and mentally.
There are a lot of extremely dedicated people working extremely hard in our healthcare system, but there are not enough. Our safety net is not wide enough.
Liars and charlatans have been able to crawl through the holes in the safety net and spout their ‘alternative medicine’. They take advantage of the fact that oncologists are time poor, and often unable to fully explain things to their patients’ satisfaction. They offer other theories, and different “treatment” options. Theories that are easier to understand than science – because they are fairytales. Treatments, they say, will not leave you fundamentally diminished on the other side.
They say things like Belle Gibson said to the Daily Mail last year: “It didn’t take me long to notice the stress conventional medicine was putting on my body so I started looking for an alternative… I was lying there one night and I read an article about how lemon in water can act as a natural detox something clicked and that’s when I changed the way I ate and lived.”
Unfortunately, if you opt for these treatments alone like Gibson claims she has, you won’t make it to the other side. But ‘alternative practitioners’ and ‘wellness gurus’ typically fail to mention that fact.
There is no such thing as ‘alternative medicine’. If something has been rigorously proven to work, it is ‘medicine’. Full stop. Eating well, exercising – these things are ‘medicine’. And if our system wasn’t overburdened, our doctors would be able to tell us so.
If something hasn’t been rigorously proven to work, then it is simply ‘alternative’. Practitioners of alternative medicine have a great talent for providing hopeful narratives and spinning optimistic tales. They often point out that conventional medicine is run for profit by nefarious pharmaceutical companies. But let Belle Gibson’s failure to donate to charity stand as a warning: practitioners of alternative medicine are just as driven by profit. They are equally money hungry, only they lack the rigour and accountability of real scientists.
If our doctors, psychologists and nurses weren’t so overburdened, they might have the time to sit down and explain this. For free. And if they had the time, perhaps less people would wind up being convinced to stop their chemo and commit slow suicide by kale juice instead.
The policies of the current government are going to make this situation considerably worse. Do not let this happen. Fight to strengthen our healthcare system, not gut it.
Don’t feel outraged by Belle Gibson. Feel outrage that cancer care in Australia – that healthcare generally – is so overburdened, and so underfunded that listening to people like Gibson seems like a viable option. Sure, Gibson’s claims are malignant, but they are a secondary cancer. The source is our failing social safety net.