health

"Our friend told us she was dying of brain cancer. She wasn't."

Who pretends to have a terminal illness when they are perfectly healthy? A very damaged person, that’s who.

There was no coma. No cancer. No girlfriend. It was all fabricated.

I write this as cautionary tale. And in light of the allegations about Belle Gibson and her possibly exaggerated claims of cancer in the last week, I would say it’s not one I will be alone in telling.

The thing is, a lot of us believe we are “street smart”. No way could WE be duped into believing an online scammer right?

WRONG.

By my very nature I am a sceptical person. So in 2010 when I started using Twitter, I took it slowly. I followed people I knew, knew of or was interested in. Now I don’t think I’m particularly naïve. In fact, I would say I am seasoned to the point of cynical. So I guess that’s why, when I (and a lot of other intelligent, sensible and savvy women) were duped by a woman, a woman I considered at the time to be my friend, into believing that she had cancer, secondary bone and brain cancer no less, I was not only pissed off, I was ashamed of myself.

Let’s call her Janelle for that is indeed the name she used. Janelle hooked us via Twitter and then her blog called ‘A Kick to the Neck’. The twittersphere back in 2010 was a different space. It was not as political, far less angry and much more about finding likeminded people.

pretending to have cancer
"There were red flags, of course there always are, in hindsight." (Image: iStock)

A bunch of us had connected through Twitter and the sharing of blog posts. I myself had just been through a pretty horrendous time with my Mum dying and found it a great support during this time.

Maybe Janelle picked us or maybe we found her, I honestly can’t remember. She appeared online just after “coming out of a coma”. A coma she’d sunk into after having surgery on her brain. See Janelle had Stage IV melanoma. The cancer had spread to her bones and her brain.

At this point, I know one of my good friends Annie, became emotionally invested when Janelle couldn’t look after her dog whilst in hospital receiving treatment and offered to look after it. It really was that easy. Within weeks, we became a community for Janelle. An online, completely inclusive and supportive community.

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An email Janelle sent to a friend of the author's asking her for information about where she lived.

Over time, more of us became friendly with her, we spoke online to her daily, she shared detailed and bravely written blog posts and photos of her treatment (Google images really comes through for you when you’re a BS artist, apparently). Those who were religious prayed for her each time she underwent yet MORE surgery and treatment. Hell, some of us even held overnight vigils while we waited for her to wake up.

When she made it to her 36th birthday, the one she was never meant to see, she asked for just one thing. A picture or painting from each of us. SEE. This is how, in the beginning and for quite some time, we suspected nothing. She didn’t ask for money or donations or in fact, money AT ALL. She just made it feel like she wanted to be loved. So I, like an idiot, went and bought a small canvas and painted her a picture. Now, I can’t paint and am not the least bit artistic but I sent it anyway. Oh how she must have laughed at that.

"No coma. No Cancer." (Image: Facebook)

There were red flags, of course there always are, in hindsight. She would talk about driving herself home from chemotherapy and stopping by McDonalds on her way home.

She lost no weight during this time (around 6 months) even though she often wrote about vomiting and being unable to eat. I’d just watched my mother wither and die from an aggressive cancer and it stuns me that my bullshit radar didn’t detect these anomalies.

A conveniently-placed bandana was enough to convince us all that she was suffering hair loss. Yet when I met with her in real life, just over a month after receiving radiation and chemo, she had a full head of hair.

Also easy to see in hindsight is that she really was a classic online "catfisher".

Step 1. Create a story people emotionally invest in
Step 2. Tell this story over a period of time.
Step 3. Draw out story with classic story arcs of loss and despair
Step 4. Float a magical sum or product that will make it all better
Step 5. Get ALL of the money and then disappear
Step 6. Start all over again.

Here are some tweets to her. Of course, we can’t see her original tweets, they have been deleted, but you can see the level of investment and care given by her online friends:

I, along with others, met with Janelle in person. You have to remember that to me, at this stage, she was a friend. A friend I desperately wanted to help and felt sorry for. The first thing that struck me was how ‘well’ she looked. She was a sizeable woman, with glowing cheeks and a full head of hair. Weird considering by her accounts she’d only finished a course of chemo a month ago. She was also rude to every retail assistant we engaged with and was incredibly harsh to my then-4-year-old son when he tripped on his shoelace, telling him to ‘get up and stop being a f***ing whinger.

Right then and there, I should have followed my gut instinct that something was off about her. But hey, just because she looked well and was a rude person didn’t mean that she didn’t have cancer, right? You can't call bullshit on someone with cancer over a "gut feeling".

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Her story continued. More vigils were held. She was constantly at death’s door and miraculously recovering. Then, she met a Doctor at the hospital. Ariel, a paediatrician at the Royal Children’s Hospital. Soon, we were all friends with Ariel on Facebook. Before long, Janelle and Dr. Ariel were in love. Dr Ariel declared it often and loudly on her Facebook page, updating us when Janelle was too weak to engage.

So yeah, it turns out that Ariel was fake, she was one of Janelle’s many convincing personas. Yet everything we’d seen to date was simply a prelude of course. It was time hook the big fish.

We all received the news delivered of course by, Dr. Ariel. Janelle was REALLY dying this time. And the only person who could save her was world-famous Brain Surgeon, Dr. Teo. She even went to such lengths to pretend she was meeting with him in Sydney by going to the airport and photographing her journey. We were hooked. What would he say? Could he save her?

Janelle posted this photo to her blog, claiming that the arrows in the x-ray pointed to her bone cancer.

Well yes, he could. One catch. She needed $30,000. Where on earth would she be able to come up with that kind of money, you guys?

Now it needs to be known, at this stage, I was already quietly calling bullshit on her. Meeting with her had left me cold. All the little inconsistencies, the fact that my workmate and I had called the hospital and there was no such Dr Ariel or the fact that Dr Teo wasn’t even in the country at the time she supposedly met with him. Another friend met her and came to the same conclusion and called her out on Twitter. We set up a private Facebook page and within hours, when the information was shared, we realised exactly what was happening.

It imploded and it was quickly established that there was:
No Girlfriend.
No Coma.
No Cancer.
She removed her blog, her twitter and her Facebook. Not before screenshots were taken and posted on this blog.

And as she’d only gotten as far as selling post it notes to raise money fraudulently, the police weren’t interested. It seemed, it still seems as though Janelle will never be brought to justice for what she did.

One of the post-it notes Janelle sold to raise money.

I can’t help but wonder what her ‘end game’ was. Was it as simple as ripping us off? Or was it that she was a desperately sad woman who started a lie to gain attention and friends but then at some point realised she had lost control?

The door-step sob stories don't work anymore, the spam emails don't work either. But through blogs and Twitter and interaction we come to care about people. Unfortunately, this is the root of con men and women throughout history - using our sense of altruism against us.

I hate that I was one of them. I felt betrayed but more than that, I felt stupid. In fact, more than anything, I’m worried that the people who really ARE sick will now always be second-guessed. That these people who make up lies purely for their own agenda, may deny help, care, love and support to those who truly need it online.

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