Last week there were headlines in Tennessee about Keele Maynor, who faked having breast cancer for five years, meanwhile collecting thousands of dollars’ worth of sick leave and donations from her coworkers.
Now Maynor, 38, is facing criminal charges for theft and forgery.
It’s a story that’s surprisingly common. Last year an Australian preacher was outed after conning his followers into believing he had cancer. In 2005 a woman in Utah lied about having cancer because she wanted more attention from her husband; she also reaped almost $16,000 in donations.
Cancer fakers also show up in online forums and discussion groups, often in search of sympathy and support and sometimes scamming for money as well.
Why do people do it? The motivation isn’t always entirely clear, but it seems to stem from a desire for personal gain, a wish for sympathy and attention, or some combination of the two. Some fakers are simply manipulative; others seem to have a tenuous hold on their mental health.
In a case from 2007, a 35-year-old woman in Utah claimed to have breast cancer – and even produced a forged letter from a doctor – so she could get leniency in a drug case. A biotech executive in Boston, facing a lawsuit by the Securities and Exchange Commission, used the same tactic last year.
One of the most common reasons for faking cancer is to collect money, as did a former teacher in Massachusetts who received more than $35,000 in donations before being caught and sentenced for fraud and larceny. In yet another case, a social worker pretended to have cancer so she could take time off work.
Some of these people go to great lengths to present a convincing story, as the case of Suzy Bass, who three times faked having cancer, shows:
After spending hours researching cancer on the Internet, Bass learned to draw convincing-looking radiation dots on her neck with a permanent marker (doctors tattoo patients so they know where to line up the radiation machine every day). She would also roll up a bath towel, stretch it between her hands and rub it back and forth against her neck as fast as she could to give herself "radiation burns." She shaved her own head with a razor and made herself throw up from chemotherapy "nausea" in school bathrooms.
Once the truth comes out, the reaction is usually one of outrage. Friends and coworkers feel betrayed. "The cruelest of cons" is how the story of Jennifer Dibble – who shopped and went to tanning salons during times she claimed to have appointments for medical treatment – is described. Said her best friend:
People were sitting around losing sleep thinking that on these days she was suffering, she was going through chemotherapy, throwing up, and meanwhile she was at the tanning salon. At the tanning salon!
An Australian woman who faked having cancer was forced to move to another town to escape the anger in her community.
Few formal studies exist of people who claim fictitious illness. At least one research paper, published last year in the Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics journal, concluded that there don’t seem to be any effective or successful therapies that have been established yet for these people.
How can you avoid being taken in by a cancer faker? It’s not always easy, acknowledges the ScamBusters Web site. Besides the heartlessness of asking the person to prove it, many scammers are quite sophisticated at forging documents – and they don’t hesitate to manipulate the heartstrings of their friends, relatives and coworkers.
The advice from ScamBusters: Know where your money is going. If you have doubts but still want to help, consider donating to a larger organization instead.
The real casualty, say those who’ve been fooled by a cancer faker, are the people who genuinely have cancer. Not only do the fakers consume valuable time and resources to which they’re not entitled, but they make the public more reluctant to trust or offer support for the next person who comes along.
Ask anyone who’s ever had cancer for real, and most would say they’d willingly forego the attention, the sympathy and the money if they could only regain their health.