Earlier this week Belle Gibson, the Australian wellness blogger who attributed overcoming the terminal illness she was supposedly afflicted with to a specialized diet, confirmed her multiple cancer diagnoses were completely fabricated . The internet has since been rife with speculation and attempts to make sense of why she spun such elaborate lies. But looking back on her story, it's hard not to ask why we didn't realize something was up earlier. Hindsight may be 20/20, but there were numerous red flags in her narrative. Regardless, it took nearly two years for anyone to start to question it.
Gibson's internet origin story goes like this: At age 20, in 2009, she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and given four months to live. After two months of chemotherapy and radiation, she abandoned the traditional methods for holistic alternatives, opting for a plant-rich diet and cutting out gluten, dairy, and GMO products. She also pursued alternative treatments such as colonics, Ayurvedics, and oxygen therapy to maintain her wellbeing. It read like a roll call of dubious health trends that while naïve and not totally consolidated by dietitians, generally don't hurt anyone outside of wheat farmers.
Except in this case. Gibson implied it was her new age diet and abandonment of traditional medicine that was keeping her cancer in check. She then launched her wildly successful health, wellness, and lifestyle app The Whole Pantry in 2013 off the back of her claims, all the while sharing her experience of living with cancer online.
It all began to unravel last month, when it came to light that her business had not donated over $300,000 to various charities, as she had promised her readers. One by one friends and other critics began to call out the discrepancies in her story, casting doubt over her illness. At one point Gibson wrote that the cancer had spread to her blood, spleen, brain, and uterus—an extremely rare occurrence for people diagnosed with a brain tumor. Three months later, she wrote that she had been "stable for two years now with no growth of the cancer."
For the record, primary tumors (those which start in the brain) have one of the highest mortality rates of all cancers. If Gibson's story was true, she was definitely defying all odds. And yet, no one thought it was strange a girl with this level of cancer was jetting off around the world and living an extremely active lifestyle.
Gibson finally cleared the air over the question of cancer in an interview with The Australian Women's Weekly, stating "none of it is true." It's an embarrassing blunder on the part of the media, who played a huge role in promoting her story. On a live interview on last year, Sunrise co-host Andrew O'Keefe told audiences, "The 25-year-old has turned her cancer diagnosis into a positive." Elle Australia called her "The Most Inspiring Woman You've Met This Year" in its December 2014 issue. Even Penguin, which has now pulled Gibson's book, The Whole Pantry, admitted it didn't think to fact check her story. A beautiful gen-Y girl who overcame great odds to inspire and change the lives of a community online—it's an irresistible story.
In the same Sunrise interview from February 2014, Samantha Armytage remarked, "For a person living with brain cancer, might I add, you look incredibly healthy." Gibson was a picture of health throughout the life of her business. Not once did anyone openly question it, and who can blame us? No one wants to be the asshole who questions the validity of someone's illness. Evidently, our need to believe in the best of people overruled our critical thinking.
But we're not completely foolish buying Gibson's story. For one, it's true that not all people living with a terminal cancer appear sick. "It's not immediately apparent that someone has a terminal cancer," says Victorian medical oncologist Dr. Ross Jennens. "There are different types of brain tumors that have different therapies and prognosis. Often with two months of conventional treatment, people have fatigue from time to time, but if they're getting enough nutrition they can look quite well after." But while healthy diet and exercise can improve a person's sense of wellbeing, there is definitely no solid proof that a diet regime alone can prolong the lifespan of someone diagnosed with a terminal illness.
It's also true that the majority of us don't know enough about the ins and outs cancer to be able to confidently call bullshit on someone's story, which explains why Gibson remained unquestioned for so long. Lawrence Saha, a sociologist at Australian National University, says our complacency as an audience could be explained in a number of ways. Firstly, it's natural that we're more concerned about how other people see us rather than how we see other people. "It goes back to the social psyche where we don't really question a lot about the people we encounter," he explains. "We're more worried about how others will see us if we do question them."
Another reason could be good old confirmation bias—people for whom modern medicine isn't yielding results want to believe that they can be cured by alternative therapies, and anecdotal evidence wields huge power over us.
Finally, if no sizable numbers of people were openly casting doubt over Gibson's personal story, it's reasonable that would-be critics would be dissuaded from calling her out. Lawrence brings up the famous Solomon Asch experiment about conforming to social pressure as an example. In it, a group of students in a room were asked to compare a number of lines and say which was longest. Everyone in the room was in collusion with the experimenter except for one person. When it came time to say which line was the longest, that person, who was made to answer last, went along with the group's answer, even though it was clearly wrong. "So even though the innocent person was right, they went along with the group thinking that 'there must be something wrong with me,' not the group," Lawrence says.
It's reprehensible that Gibson could for so long profit off of a lie and in turn belittle real sufferers of cancer. But it's also interesting what the saga has reflected back upon us as consumers. Gibson's story highlights our vulnerability to be taken for a ride, and how our implicit trust in others can lead to train wrecks like this.
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