Lessons we can learn from the wellness blogger who lied about having cancer
Belle Gibson is perhaps more well-known now than she ever dreamt of becoming — except for the fact that, now, it’s for all the wrong reasons.
Belle began posting on Instagram in 2013 and quickly gained a cult following for her inspirational outlook and message of healthy living. The self-described “wellness blogger” shared that she had been diagnosed with terminal, inoperable brain cancer in 2009 and had been given months to live, but claimed she was fighting back against the tragic diagnosis with clean eating and alternative therapies.
According to her uplifting posts, she was winning the battle. She was also winning legions of fans, which led to her signing a book deal and launching a successful app, The Whole Pantry.
But, of course, we know now that her story was a lie — every last word. She never had cancer. She was never dying. She never had treatment for the illness, nor did she have a heart operation (she claimed she had three) or come close to death on an operating table.
The blogger agreed to a televised interview with journalist Tara Brown on 60 Minutes, and the resulting story was entirely perplexing. Rather than clarify her story, Belle seems to have muddied the waters even further. After following her story and watching Belle’s interview, here are a few lessons we can all learn from the 26-year-old mother of one.
1. You always need a second opinion — or even a third
In her book, Belle claimed she received her tragic cancer diagnosis in her doctor’s office. She also wrote, “I have been healing a malignant brain cancer for the past few years with natural medicine, Gerson therapy and foods. It’s working for me.”
During the interview, she revealed that it was a mysterious, untraceable immunologist called Mark Johns who diagnosed her with cancer after visiting her in her home and using a box with paddles to “measure her frequencies”. After this shocking diagnosis — made without the involvement of a neurologist, an MRI or any scans at all — Belle apparently took his diagnosis as fact and ran with it. Why she didn’t get a second and third opinion immediately is anyone’s guess.
2. We must stop taking health advice from social media personalities
The biggest and most serious impact of Belle Gibson’s lie is on those who followed her advice. They were led to believe that they could manage their own cancer symptoms and prognoses by rejecting chemotherapy and instead eating clean and embracing alternative therapies.
Consequently, as viewer Raylene K posted on Facebook, “I do wonder, did anyone pull themselves out of conventional treatment because of her — did she cost lives?” This is, by far, the most serious consequence of her lies.
My dad has been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer and he asked his doctor about the effectiveness of a new vitamin regimen he’d heard about. His doctor said something that has stuck with me since. “If we thought it would help for you to hop up and down on one foot for an hour each day, we’d tell you to do it,” he said gently. “So while taking those vitamins can’t hurt, the most effective treatment against your cancer is chemotherapy."
While there’s no doubt in my mind that the natural therapies my dad uses are helping him manage his cancer symptoms, I’m even clearer on the fact that if not for chemo, he wouldn’t be with us today.
3. Paper trails don’t lie
During her interview, Belle claimed she “had her suspicions” about her diagnosis when she was still alive 12 months later. It prompted her to get an MRI, but she says the scan results were delivered directly to Mark Johns.
“He had me sign paperwork that enlisted him as my medical professional, where the scan would be passed on to him to consult on it. He brought in scans to me and it showed a brain tumour. But that wasn't my scan. I recently went back and got my full portfolio from them and there is no tumour on my scan,” she says.
Belle provided copies of this scan to 60 Minutes — which was surprising, as it failed to confirm her story. In fact, the scan, dated November 2011, confirms that she did, in fact, have a 40-minute consultation with a neurologist, who told her that she had no symptoms of brain cancer. It further confirmed that although she was concerned she had multiple sclerosis, there was also no evidence of that illness, either.
4. For some, lying comes naturally
It’s natural to want to believe people — especially when the person telling the story claims they’re dying of an inoperable brain tumour. But if Belle’s interview on 60 Minutes confirmed anything, it’s that the young mother is troubled.
Psychologist Sandy Rea tweeted during the interview, “Belle's responses reflect disorganised thought, impaired reality and denial. She does NOT have Factitious Disorder Imposed on Self. She would be assessed as a Compulsive Liar ONLY.” She added that “reality is not within her grasp”.
Indeed, Belle’s story is inconsistent at best (this Facebook curation can help you fill in the gaps). But the real test of her seeming inability to be truthful came when Tara asked her to confirm her age. “I've always been raised as being currently a 26-year-old,” Belle replied. “I believe that I'm 26, I have two birth certificates, and I've had my name changed four times. The identity crisis there is big, but that was my normal when I was growing up, Tara.”
We can’t stop trusting people. But having a little healthy scepticism when reviewing what we read and believe can’t hurt.