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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Cancer Patient and the Vigilante

By Heather Millar

Woman Spying

The first time I heard the story, I dismissed it as a freak occurrence. But, then, I heard of another case not long ago. Could this really be a part of the cancer patient landscape?

Here’s how the story goes: Person gets cancer. Person plunges into the scary vortex of the days just post-diagnosis, with the straight-up learning curve, the emotional roller coaster, the endless tests, and the harrowing series of life-and-death decisions. Then the Person proceeds to have surgery, chemo and radiation.

Meanwhile, someone the Person knows, a co-worker or an acquaintance, decides that the Person doesn’t really have cancer. The acquaintance, let’s call him or her the Vigilante, proceeds to mount a campaign to expose the Person. The Vigilante hires a private detective to track the cancer patient, creates a blog and posts harassing screeds trying to “expose” the Person. The Vigilante tracks down the Person’s fellow support group members and calls them up, trying to press them for details that might prove that the Person doesn’t have cancer.

Meanwhile, the Person loses her hair and has to quit working because of chemo side effects. (Try faking that!)

Wow. After I heard this sort of tale for the second time, I couldn’t quite believe it. Why would anyone put this much energy into haranguing a cancer patient? Aren’t there more rewarding pursuits, like tormenting kittens or stealing candy from babies?

Of course, there’s a long, sorry history of people actually faking cancer. I wrote about a couple recent cancer fakers in a previous post. Apparently, faking cancer has fairly long and active history: Wikipedia has a heavily footnoted listing of about one dozen celebrated cancer hoaxes in the last decade. A 23-year-old from Ontario fakes cancer and gets send to Disneyworld as her dying wish. A woman in Tennessee fakes breast cancer to get donations and extra sick days. A teenager in Texas fakes leukemia to raise thousands on the internet. Numerous chain letters purporting to help non-existent cancer patients continue to circulate.

As I’ve said before, there has to be a special place of torment for people who think that faking cancer is a funny way to raise a few extra bucks. Obviously, these people have something wrong with them. An ABC News story explored what might make people do such a thing. Maybe it’s desperation, maybe it’s delusion, maybe it’s anger, or maybe it’s just greed.

And, I guess someone had to be suspicious to expose these well-known fraudsters. Someone had to do some digging.

But if you’re faced with a person who’s actually losing their hair, who has surgery scars, who’s quit their job for health reasons, who’s struggling financially—as has happened in the two cases I’ve seen—why would you continue to harass that person? Why would you continue to insist that that person doesn’t have cancer?

Denial takes many forms, I guess. People respond to cancer with some pretty baroque forms of denial, but this is the weirdest kind of denial I’ve found. What do you think? Have you heard of similar cases?

Photo: iStockphoto

Posted by: Heather Millar at 1:00 am

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