Since I was diagnosed with Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer in mid-2017, there have been two people that I followed closely on social media who were “outed” as not actually having the level of illness they had claimed. I’m not going to use their names in this blog post because this is about me sorting through my feelings about what has happened, not what happened to them or what they did. I don’t want to give anyone who has behaved badly more attention; at the same time, it is important to understand how this sort of thing affects the entire community.
We’ll call the first person “J” and the second “K.”
The first time it happened, I was floored. Literally flabbergasted, horrified, and completely blindsided. I’d invested myself and my energy in following the journey of “J,” a woman who posted about having to get cancer treatment while she was pregnant, a pregnancy that would likely kill her because she had to forego levels of treatment to protect her as yet unborn daughter. J talked about her advocacy efforts and the blood transfusions that were keeping her alive. She’d posted about having blood drives and all of the bucket list activities she was completing. I stalked her like I don’t usually stalk people online because I was invested in her experiences and I was so afraid for her.
Then, around the time she should have been giving birth, when I literally prayed for her and her daughter daily, J’s profile disappeared. I honestly thought she must have died and tried to search for her obituary. I didn’t find any notification of her death, just articles and information about how she’d been found out. That J was lying about being pregnant, about having cancer, and that this was a pattern of behavior that had repeated itself multiple times, at least the part about pretending to be pregnant.
I was devastated.
It literally affected me to such a deep point that I was a bit concerned. How could I have gotten so attached to this stranger, this person I’d never met? How could the betrayal feel so personal? What was going on with me that led me to be so invested in her experiences and the outcome?
It’s hard to articulate how devastating that first experience was and it led me to pulling back a bit, to not investing as much in the metastatic community because it scared me. It scared me how much I was identifying with a person who turned out to be scamming people for money. I know that a big part of why I was so focused on J was the part of her experiences that affected her child. That resonated with me, it pulled me in, because it has been such a HUGE part of my struggle to reconcile my own cancer diagnosis with being a mom; with how having a terminal diagnosis affects my children.
Inevitably, I engaged again, I started following the experiences of others more closely, but I confess that I’m more skeptical now. When something feels off, I look a little closer, and I have tried to protect myself a bit more. I’m not sure I’ve succeeded much, but that first experience gave me a lot of pause. So much pause that I confess to interrogating or perhaps cross examining people when stories don’t add up. I do try to keep myself under control, but this is a MAJOR trigger for me now.
Recently, another woman was outed, we’ll call her “K.” I’ve been aware of the concerns about her for longer than J. I wasn’t as personally invested in K’s experiences or the details, but this time, I was privy to more information earlier. I spoke with various people who had been directly affected by K’s behavior and tried to provide some legal guidance as to what could be done. The information was gathered and notes were compared before anyone went public.
And then the internet exploded.
Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration because people outside of the metastatic cancer community may not be aware as much about the issues or the affect on so many people; however, the affect on the people within this community has been profound. The same way I felt when J was outed was how so many people in the metastatic community felt when K was outed and they were vocal and MAD about it.
You see, both of these women preyed on people who could not really afford to help them. People within the metastatic and larger cancer communities gave more than they really could afford. When it came out that the recipients of this generosity was not being honest, were pretending to be in dire straits medically or in other ways, the feeling of betrayal and outrage was practically leaping off the page.
Another difference between these two experiences was that J, while often complaining about how she was treated by people who clearly knew something was up, K often displayed overtly aggressive and bullying behavior. Being a strong, outspoken, and direct person, I’ve gotten complaints over the years in a similar vein. I do think that certain personality traits can be misinterpreted as being aggressive and female behavior is labeled and addressed differently than a man’s.
However, in this instance, I’m not talking about just being strong, I’m talking about going over the line, to be unkind and calling names and behavior that becomes more than a misunderstanding. This is an important distinction.
I don’t pretend to understand either J or K. I don’t understand their motives. Living with a terminal diagnosis is awful. It is hard, it is heartbreaking and it is isolating. To voluntarily pursue that experience is baffling. I suppose that there is an element of attention, if you want it. It’s just not something I’d want to get attention for if I had a choice.
At the end of the day, I know intellectually that hurt people hurt people. I am well aware intellectually that mental illness or unresolved trauma or unmet needs can lead people to do things that look inexplicable from the outside. I’m not a mental health person and I can’t pretend to understand the why behind the behavior.
What I do know is that you can’t just say J/K (a/k/a Just Kidding) about something like this.
No person can co-opt the experiences of others and pretend to be a part of a courageous and often desperate group of men and women without consequences. Perhaps the legal cases will go nowhere. Maybe GoFundMe won’t ever require that people prove that they have the medical conditions that provide the basis of requests for funds. Maybe on this earth, J and K won’t be held accountable.
What I do know is that there will be a reckoning, maybe in this life, maybe in the next.
I’m a big believer in karma; that what you put into the universe will come back to you; what you sow, you will reap. Even though I would like to personally give both of these women (and anyone else who pretends to have cancer) a choice piece of my mind along with some choice language that I don’t often use, pretending to be something they are not will, in the end, hurt them the most.
These women deserve our pity, not our vitriol. The greatest revenge, after all, is to live well; to move on as if these people have had no affect. That is how we show them, and others, that their efforts to disrupt the supportive community, the encouragement we give each other daily will not bear fruit. You see, those of us who genuinely care, who push past the point of pain to offer encouragement and support even while we carry our own burden, we aren’t pretending, about having cancer or anything else.