health

'Like Belle Gibson, I faked having cancer. Then my lie started unravelling.'

This story was told to Shona Hendley. Names have been changes and some specific details have been omitted for anonymity. The feature image used is a stock image.

Like Belle Gibson, I too faked a cancer diagnosis.

I lied to my family and friends, and I even lied to myself.

It was over ten years ago now, but I still carry with me an enormous sense of guilt about what I did.

WATCH: Doing life with and without hair. Post continues below.

Video via Mamamia

I also feel sad for myself back then because I was sick, just in a different way. I was in such in a poor place mentally. I wasn’t me.

Looking back on it, and telling you, makes me feel nauseous. There’s a sinking feeling; my blood feels like it’s draining from my body. But more than anything I feel heartbroken that I felt this was my only option. The only way to make me feel loved.

I want to explicitly state that I am in no way trying to defend my choices; I know what I did was completely wrong. More than wrong. It was incomprehensible for so many reasons.

With the power and healing nature of time, therapy and maturing I can see that. But then, aged 22, I couldn’t.

I grew up in an unequivocally loving family. My parents were caring, devoted, present – really everything you could want in parents. My sister and I were always close. Rachel* was younger than me by two years, so we were similar in age and from this stemmed a beautiful relationship as sisters and as friends. For years we were inseparable. These are my favourite childhood memories, and I know they are for Rachel too.

But when Rachel was ten, she began to get sick – a lot. For years the doctors couldn’t work out what it was, until after two years of Rachel first experiencing symptoms, she was diagnosed with a chronic medical condition. The symptoms are treatable, but the illness itself is incurable.

When Rachel began experiencing symptoms and they started to impact her daily life, we went from being inseparable to slowly drifting apart from one another. It wasn’t a conscious decision; often it would just be the fact that I was at school while Rachel was at home or in the hospital and we found ourselves in different places physically – but due to this, also in different places mentally.

ADVERTISEMENT

Even after Rachel was diagnosed, she still suffered major flare-ups and challenges with her condition and with the treatment. Understandably my parents found themselves focused on Rachel and trying to get her better.

I, on the other hand, was seen as the able one, the one who could do things without them. And I did.

Slowly, it felt as if I wasn’t as important; that I didn’t need or deserve their attention, until there came a point when I was in my late teens that I just felt unloved.

For years I felt this way, and the feeling grew more and more over time until one day I broke. That was when I decided in my mind that the way to gain their attention, their care and their love was to be sick like Rachel.

I decided to make up an illness, and that illness was cancer.

Before I told my mum the news, I looked into my chosen cancer – how it’s usually diagnosed, how it presents, and established what symptoms I would tell my family had led me to my doctor to undergo some ‘tests’. I would pretend I had been to these appointments by myself.

I knew it was possible that this could happen to someone. I just had to be careful about what I said so that I didn’t make a mistake.

Then, when I was finished my planning, I said the words out loud for the first time: “Mum, I have cancer.”

My mum believed me, and she was devastated.

She has since told me that this news shattered her. She always knew that Rachel would battle her condition but in her eyes, I was the hope – the capable one, the one with all the opportunities and the world at her fingertips. Hearing this news took that dream she had for me away.

All I saw at the time were feelings I hadn’t experienced for years, attention and love. And it made me feel good. I was so obsessive I just couldn’t see what I was doing was so wrong.

From that moment my lie just took on its own life.

I schemed, I orchestrated well-thought-through plans and explanations, I researched, I wrote notes in a book that I carried with me everywhere – notes that could help me remember what I had told people, what answers I could give to their probable questions.

“What treatment are they giving you?”

“What are the side effects?”

“What is the prognosis?”

ADVERTISEMENT

Questions about my treatment, about the cancer I had, its stage, its type, how they discovered it, how I was feeling – there were so many questions I had assumed they would ask, and being an organised person, I set out to find the answers so my lie would be believed.

Listen to Mamamia Out Loud to tune into what women are talking about this week. Post continues below.

Soon my entire family knew, my friends were told and that craving for compassion and love that I had yearned for was now being thrown at me from every direction.

At first, it felt how I had hoped it would. I felt like I was the centre of attention of my family for the first time in years. It was me that they spoke about, who they asked after, who they called every day, who they did things for, who they sent well wishes to. I felt completely loved.

But the reality of my situation soon sunk in. Not only had I made up the most incomprehensible lie and told it to the people I loved, I also knew that I couldn’t get out of it. Not without actually telling them the truth.

I knew soon my lie would become obvious. They would observe the lack of side effects of ‘treatment’. My constant rejection of allowing my parents or sister or friends to accompany me to appointments would be questioned.

I knew it was only a matter of time before I had to do something.

For months I had this internal tug of war between the lie and the truth. Then about four months in, it all came crashing down.

It became too much, and it took nothing but my own doing to find myself hysterically crying in my mum’s arms, telling her everything. By then she had already started to piece things together herself, so it wasn’t a total shock for her, which I suppose in hindsight was a good thing. She was amazingly supportive and just wanted me to get better; she knew it wasn’t ‘me’.

None of it was easy. The ramifications of what I had done were immense. I lost friends, even some family. My parents and my sister all dealt with it differently but all, in time, forgave me for my lie. They also felt a degree of guilt that I had felt so desperate that I saw this as my only option.

While many can’t comprehend why someone would lie like this, I can, because I did.

The reality is, for many, it may never make sense because often these psychological problems don’t unless you experience them firsthand.

What is important though is that these mistakes don’t define you as a person. Not if you admit them, apologise and work on the underlying issue behind them.

That is all you can do.

Feature image: Getty.

00:00 / ???