Who fakes having cancer?

Two women in one week are busted for pretending to be terminally ill. They're far from the only pranksters

Topics: Cancer, Internet Culture, Münchausen syndrome, Lori Stilley, Jami Lynn Toler,

Who fakes having cancer?Lori Stilley, recently arrested for false claims of stage-3 bladder cancer. (Credit: AP)

When Lori Stilley said she had Stage 3 bladder cancer and no health insurance, her New Jersey community rallied around her, hosting fundraisers and delivering meals to her home. They got together to help her throw her dream wedding. The response was so inspiring, she even penned an e-book about the experience and sold copies of it at $14.99 a pop. Then, a year ago, she had a miraculous turnaround, and her cancer seemed to go into remission. It struck her friends as being a little too miraculous — they became suspicious. This week, Stilley was arrested on charges of  fraud by deception and released on $25,000 bail. Prosecutor Robert Bernardi called her actions “extremely cruel.”

Cruel, yes, but surprisingly not uncommon. Just this Wednesday, Jami Lynn Toler, the Phoenix woman who falsely claimed she had breast cancer to raise money for implants, was sentenced to a year in jail. Stilley and Toler join a long line of faux-cancer patients who came before them: Two years ago, Jessica Vega made headlines when she was caught feigning terminal cancer to get an all-expenses-paid wedding and honeymoon. When her new husband caught on, he turned her in. And in one of the most outrageous examples of how far this kind of deceit goes, in 2010, in a single week, two unrelated Canadian women pleaded guilty to lying about having terminal cancer. The cancer-patient hoax is so prevalent, it’s got its own Wikipedia page.

Why do people do it?  There are generally two kinds of cancer fakers – the ones who do it for money and goodies and the ones who seem to have Münchausen by Internet syndrome, a bizarre compulsion to appear sick. For those people, the scam isn’t for profit, it’s for another kind of satisfaction: attention or sympathy. As writer Jenny Kleeman noted in the Guardian last year, “There’s little doubt that women are disproportionately involved, both as perpetrators and as victims.”

There’s no more chilling recent example than a fascinating blog post on Idle Words earlier this month about the odyssey of Diane Person, who met a fellow cancer patient named Stephanie Bourque. Her boyfriend says, “The friendship was one of the few silver linings in a bad year.” Until a psychiatrist called, asking, “How certain are you that Steph has cancer?”  And with that, her story began to unravel: “The whole procedure, from weekly biopsies, to chemo, to hip necrosis, to sudden fevers … had been a fabrication.”

The generosity that comes free with every admission into Club Cancer is astonishing. Take it from me: From the moment I revealed I had cancer, through my surgery and its success and then a harrowing re-diagnosis until eventually, my phenomenally bright results, I have been deluged with love and support. Though I’d never in a million years have asked for it and I hate it with every healthy cell in my body, my cancer turned out to be one of the most profound, intimate and affirming experiences of my life. When I went for a maintenance treatment earlier this month, I wore a necklace that a woman I’ve never met sent me in a show of solidarity and humanity. And when my artist friend Will was diagnosed with leukemia last summer, a crowd-funding campaign to help with his medical expenses exceeded its financial goal within days, while neighbors flocked to his hospital bed bearing offerings of food and love. Because people are helpful and amazing and will blow you away with what they’ll do when a fellow human being is suffering. That is one of the most wonderful things you can discover in life.

On the downside, when you have cancer for real, the treatment side effects can range from mildly irritating to flat-out debilitating, and there is that whole near-constant-specter-of-death thing to make you wake up screaming in the middle of the night. OK, that only happened to me once. But I wonder if people like Lori Stilley and Stephanie Bourque can even begin to fathom what that terror is really like. I wonder if they’ve ever sat at the bedside of someone with late stage cancer, or gone to a home where two newly motherless children are running around while the grown-ups drink wine and pick at the lox platter. I have.

That’s why, having experienced the tremendous power of community – both online and off —I’m always so dismayed when I get a request to help someone’s crowd-funding campaign or RT info about a cancer patient and I don’t know for sure if the story checks out. Because I can’t do it. And that’s not just sad. It’s infuriating, the way the scam artists and the deeply troubled can inject their poison directly into the best part of our nature – the part that spurs us to reach out, to connect, to help in times of crisis, and to heal. The way they eat away at the trust and exploit it. For the fakers, cancer is a perfect disguise – it manifests itself in so many different ways. But for everyone who’s experienced it either directly or via a loved one, that duplicity is just another pain, another insult on top of illness. It’s sick. And unfortunately, it affects us all. The only cure is healthy skepticism.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>