How can I tell if someone is lying about their brain cancer?
August 23, 2011 3:12 PM   Subscribe

Are we party to someone else’s delusion and/or scam? I am concerned that a colleague of my husband’s is so mentally ill/needy that she has invented a lethal illness; and now this deception/delusion has spread to involve many other people. Long explanation inside.

My husband often collaborates with a fellow musician (we’ll call her Sheila) who he met via an online community; she also lives in our town. She is very talented, but also very mentally unbalanced, which manifests as mood swings, flashbacks, and compulsive, constant, talking, except when she is playing music. She has kids that currently live with her parents because neither she nor her estranged husband are capable of caring for them.

In the course of getting to know my husband she has told him that her flashbacks are to a time when, as a child, her parents let her be sexually abused in a child prostitution ring; the money she lives on now is a settlement from this time. These are the same parents who now have custody of her kids, so they’re not in jail, which seems…odd. She claims that she was “brainwashed”: by methods involving drugs, hypnotism by flashing lights (such that she freaks out at the sight of police lights), and that she sustained a head injury from a beating that resulted in her now having a glioblastoma in her brain.

About that glioblastoma; several months ago, she announced she was getting it operated on the next day..and that she was being admitted for surgery at midnight. We expressed surprise at a surgery being scheduled that late; she said that it was because she was Jewish and that she was getting a special deal with the surgeon (also Jewish) and help from the local Jewish community. When we saw her a day or so later, there was no evidence of a bandage on her head (though she does have long thick hair) or bruising from an IV on her hand. I had serious doubts at this point but said nothing.

A few months ago, my husband’s best friend killed himself; two days after the funeral, Sheila told him tearfully that the glioblastoma was malignant and she was going to die. For a while she simply hung out seeking comfort; then a month or so later, she revealed that another surgery might help her, although the odds were not good. Rumors had been circulating in the online community they were in, and she finally told some other people about the situation. Multiple fundraisers sprang up, eventually raising thousands of dollars for her surgery and/or aftercare. If she died on the table, the money was to go to a charity.

This surgery was also scheduled at 11pm last night, another favor from a local surgeon. Her estranged husband was supposedly the person sending my husband and other friends text updates on her condition, though oddly, he used her phone to do so. He texted that one point she apparently was in a brief “coma;” at another in “shock.” But then, apparently the hospital sent her home at 2am because she was “doing well” and is sleeping at home as I post.

My husband mainly sees her as a music colleague and also is reluctant to accuse anyone of lying about a fatal illness. I feel like there’s red flags everywhere. She has not asked us for money, but has taken several thou from other people at this point, and I’m pretty freaked out by the whole situation.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (61 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
there is absolutely, positively no way someone could go from admittance to surgery to coma to home in their bed in 180 minutes.
posted by radiosilents at 3:17 PM on August 23, 2011 [44 favorites]

I am doubtful of this woman's story. I find it implausible, but you have given her nothing but a little sympathy so just ignore it.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 3:18 PM on August 23, 2011

Dude, you are being totally hosed here. This is all utter bullshit. Nobody is admitted for surgery at 11 pm and is released 3 hours later, even without all this shock and coma crap. They can't even get your blood drawn and back from the lab in 3 hours. The whole thing is bogus.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:19 PM on August 23, 2011 [28 favorites]

Glioblastomas are not caused by acute trauma, and, as noted above, there is a 0% chance she got sent home at 2am after an 11pm brain surgery. There might be other stuff going on, sure, but this sure ain't it.
posted by brainmouse at 3:20 PM on August 23, 2011

This dude had surgery for a glioblastoma. I'm pretty sure your Sheila didn't.
posted by headspace at 3:21 PM on August 23, 2011 [6 favorites]

I have been following this blog, An Inconvenient Tumor, which is about a guy who does have a glioblastoma. It details the course of this guy's treatment, which sound utterly incompatible with what you've described.
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:21 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

...and also is reluctant to accuse anyone of lying about a fatal illness

Don't be. Some people do very, very weird things to attract attention.
posted by Melismata at 3:21 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had a cyst removed from my ass and even that took six hours. It's a load of horseshit.
posted by griphus at 3:22 PM on August 23, 2011 [23 favorites]

I'm not a doctor and I'm not totally clear on the timeline, but there doesn't seem to be such a thing as a non-malignant glioblastoma. Irritatingly, there is some correlation between location of glioblastomas and previous brain injury, it seems. Then throw in the completely implausible surgery/recovery timeline.
posted by hoyland at 3:23 PM on August 23, 2011

Came it to note that malignant glioblastoma does not come from head trauma. IANAD, but I have been close to glioblastoma patients, and have interviewed doctors that have ideas about how glioblastomas come to exist. Think about it: a tumor from brain injury? Not unless she was hit in the head by a brick of plutonium.
posted by jabberjaw at 3:26 PM on August 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

We had a "bust" on a [closed] on-line group I am a member of just recently; people were suspicious, and... Anyway, it went down like this:

-- address from a "Secret Santa" exchange Googled; name of homeowner discovered
-- more Googling; homeowner's children's names found in an obituary
-- various relatives of flim-flammer found on Facebook
-- many status updates on non-private profiles read, many pictures peeped

In a day or two the person(s) looking to find out what the deal was had found out everything there was to find out. She had not taken money from any of us, but had preyed on sympathies to the point where taking up a collection had been discussed.

It does not take very many non-private Facebook profiles, it turns out, before you find out that Wendy and Jimmy and Sue all went out for pizza on July 15th and Wendy's mom works at the same place Jim's girlfriend does and blah blah blah; I would be surprised if a little digging didn't bring up enough holes for you to be confident that this is somebody best ignored.

People do take this stuff seriously -- Cancer faker gets 6 months house arrest, Cancer faker gets 10 month house arrest and curfew...
posted by kmennie at 3:29 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't know if this is the right way to deal with it, but I had a "third roommate" (someone my other roommate knew and brought in) who had a lot of problems, which manifested (among other ways) in lying about a serious and potentially fatal illness. Once it became clear she wasn't ill, I started making sympathetic noises but saying nothing specific when she complained about her illness, and finding other things I had to go do so I wasn't in the conversation long. I didn't respond to any specific. I didn't offer advice. I didn't commiserate beyond sympathetic noises and sometimes "That would be tough."

But do not participate in fundraisers or other attempts to gain attention. You might speak quietly to the organizing person about your observations, if you're in a position to do so. (If it's a community organization, a mutual acquaintance, etc., you can probably do this. I'd probably just say, "Her story about her treatments has raised some questions for us. I know she's under a lot of strain, but you may want to verify where the money is going or administer this through the hospital's charitable giving program" or whatever. Otherwise you probably just have to let it go.)

As it became more and more apparent that this third roommate was seriously mentally ill and was pathologically lying about medical issues, we quietly spoke to make mutual friends about what we'd noticed -- not to drive her away, but so that nobody else was hoodwinked. People continued to be kind to her but not give her "medical issues" a lot of attention. We basically acted as if her exhaustion was a result of her mental illness -- which I'm sure it was -- rather than of her imaginary physical illness, and everyone tried to engage with her on other topics and ignore her imaginary illness.

She did, eventually, get help, after she left our roommate situation (we weren't sympathetic enough to her). She had to do a mental health assessment for a job she wanted, and she super-failed and all her references (professors and supervisors, not friends) said she had serious problems. This was enough of a wake-up call for her to get in treatment and start sorting herself out. I understand she is doing better although I'm not in contact with her.

There's not a whole lot you can do except refuse to engage with her when she's lying (but be compassionate because she obviously has a problem), speak privately with mutual friends about it, and trust that other people will come to the same conclusion. It's a sad situation more than anything else, really.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:35 PM on August 23, 2011 [8 favorites]

Was she showing any signs of reduced functioning, like aphasia, partial paralysis, or actually any other stuff that you might care to mention that the brain is in charge of regulating and which would therefore be affected by a glioma?

Or was she walking around and acting like absolutely nothing was wrong? Was it like on TV where the person has advanced cancer of the mascara and therefore lives in exactly three states: on, standby, and off? Was she perhaps able to do something super strenuous like dance a three-act full-evening ballet before collapsing beautifully amidst a shower of floral tributes?

Was her hairstyle in any way affected by the patch of hair that they shaved off to take the biopsy to confirm that it was a glioma? (They did take a biopsy before surgery, right?)

Did they shave her head at all before the surgery? Who was at home to look after her after such remarkably effective and intricate-cutting up of the most complex organ in her body, to remove a tumour with tendrils that just get everywhere and I don't know what all?

It is kinda funny that her massively criminal parents have custody of her children. I'd say it was impossible, but hey, people get off scot-free from doing really bad stuff all the time. Except Sheila, of course, who got her kids taken away from her just for neglect, so I guess there is some justice in this world, even if it doesn't apply to her parents. You have to ask, though, what specifically has she done to fight this over the years? Wouldn't she have tried to get them placed with people who haven't been prosecuted for running a child prostitution ring? Also query child services being okay with this, but hey, everyone knows what child services are like. It's a disgrace.

And what could Sheila possibly have to gain by faking such a serious illness - oh, wait.

I believe the part about her having a head injury, because otherwise Sheila would be making more effort to create a story that actually hangs together. If it weren't for that I would suspect her of faking her mental instability too. Come to think of it, I still suspect her of that, because it's the mental illness that encourages people like your husband to pity her, and if she gets busted she was never responsible for her actions in the first place.
posted by tel3path at 3:44 PM on August 23, 2011 [6 favorites]

Oh and, it's not at all unheard of for people to fake illness for attention. Google "factitious disorder".
posted by tel3path at 3:47 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sheila is absolutely and completely full of shit. People like this are all over the place. Cut and run.

If she asks why you're cutting and running you should feel no shame in telling her that you know she's lying and you have no intention of being a party to it. Then cut and run. Having her in your life is inviting trouble.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 3:56 PM on August 23, 2011 [10 favorites]

Imagine all the drugs you could buy with thousands of dollars.

Total scam time, ...(such that she freaks out at the sight of police lights)...

You added that for a reason, and you know what it is.
posted by Max Power at 3:57 PM on August 23, 2011 [12 favorites]

My grandmother had brain cancer/glioblastoma. How long had she supposedly had this for? Because those things are malignant and they are serious. My grandmother was in surgery within two weeks of her diagnosis. You get moved to the priority list for stuff like that. She was also in the hospital for at least a few days afterward. They remove a tumor from your BRAIN, they're not going to just send you on your merry way if you seem OK in a few hours. Plus, of course, her surgery took a few hours in and of itself... think about it, they have to actually cut into your skull and then fix it.

Is she now in chemo? The other thing about brain tumors is that they can rarely remove the whole thing, so then you have to do chemotherapy to hopefully shrink the rest of it. If she still has hair in a few months, I call BS (plus, wouldn't they have shaved her head to operate on her brain?)
posted by nakedmolerats at 4:05 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Call the police. You are a witness to fraud.
posted by SMPA at 4:09 PM on August 23, 2011 [26 favorites]

I work for a surgeon. Surgeries are not scheduled for 11 pm. I see one-day post-op breast augmentation patients who aren't really functional beyond walking and talking; multiply this times 1 billion for brain surgery. This lady didn't have surgery and is clearly deeply disturbed.
posted by tatiana wishbone at 4:10 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Thousands of dollars" for surgery... you know that just the biopsy costs tens of thousands rather than thousands, right? Let alone the actual surgery?
posted by tel3path at 4:20 PM on August 23, 2011

She is either a pathological liar or so delusional that she has had a break with reality. There is not a single fraction of a possibility that any of this is true. This is not how hospital admissions and procedures/surgeries happen under any circumstances, ever. The people who have given her money have been defrauded.
posted by scody at 4:32 PM on August 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

You might do some sleuthing to see if she has pulled this before, on others. Also, calling your Attorney General might be in order.
posted by annsunny at 4:37 PM on August 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

So, obviously, this woman is a faker. I'm going to just assume your question was "How can I tell if someone is lying about their brain cancer... and what do I do if they are?"

If the fundraisers had never happened, I'd say to ignore it/her. But I'm having a really hard time with being okay with allowing well-intentioned people to be scammed out of thousands of dollars in this economy. I think you need to alert someone, and get that money to a charity that needs it, or back into the hands of the people that donated so that they can give it to someone else that needs help.

Given that it seems like Sheila never asked for this money, but people went out and set up these fundraisers themselves, I'd say she's really just looking for attention. Maybe that means leave the police out of it, depending on your ethics
posted by coupdefoudre at 4:38 PM on August 23, 2011

"Given that it seems like Sheila never asked for this money, but people went out and set up these fundraisers themselves"

Except doesn't Sheila live off a settlement? Is it believable that people would just foist money on her without even checking first if she actually needed it?
posted by tel3path at 4:40 PM on August 23, 2011

Good catch, tel3path. I don't know, just saying the OP could speak with the organizers of the fundraisers (and presumably controllers of the money) before taking any further action - IF the OP wants to. Possibly mentally ill or not, this is probably a crime (and hey, maybe getting the authorities involved would be a positive for helping Sheila).
posted by coupdefoudre at 4:45 PM on August 23, 2011

My father in law had malignant glioblastoma mutiforme. His brain surgery itself took 11 hours. Your "friend" is a bad liar and a thief. I'd call the cops.
posted by murrey at 4:48 PM on August 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

Maybe this is a colossally bad idea, but if this happened in my circle I'd be turning over the idea of sending an anonymous letter to Sheila, something along the lines of:

"Sheila, many of us know you lied and you don't have a brain tumor. Everyone has wanted to support you, but talking to medical professionals has made it clear that the story you have told is simply impossible. We don't wish you harm, but we can't let you take money from people who need it and gave it from kindness. Return the money or we will talk to the police about what we know."

Maybe she'll return the money with a story that lets her keep her dignity intact, maybe she'll just ignore it, maybe she'll make a big song and dance about how someone is falsely accusing her. Unintended consequences and all that... still, it's one option.
posted by crabintheocean at 5:01 PM on August 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

My boss has a glioblastoma and my husband's stepfather died from one. Long story short no way in hades this woman has one.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:14 PM on August 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

One thing I would add to all of this is that Sheila's behavior seems pathological to me. I know that's an obvious statement at this point, but for your own sanity it's worth considering the implications of that. It's possible that you will come up with a confrontation and enough pieces of evidence that you catch her in a lie that she cannot get out of, but it's unlikely. I think she will either have some outrageous justification/explanation or she will attack you for confronting/disbelieving her.

My point is really this: without serious professional help she will NOT change. She may escalate, but her behavior will continue to be unstable, unpredictable and problematic. If you are in a position to help her by all means feel free to do so, but that means actually helping her get mental health treatment and not money, fundraising, etc. for obvious shams, etc. Otherwise, decide exactly what you are and are not willing to put up with, tolerate, etc. and set very clear boundaries and stick to them.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 5:17 PM on August 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

Please post online, even anonymously, in the same forums that are being used to fundraise, that she doesn't have brain cancer.

I would phrase it very sympathetically, because this is going to blow up enough without people reacting defensively to the news, e.g. something like:

"When you read what I am about to tell you, please think of X with compassion.

X does not have brain cancer. She does not have a glioblastoma.

X does have issues, that have lead to a history of fantasising and lying. These things deserve compassion and treatment.
I do not believe she intended fundraising and cash to be given to her, rather, that she desperately needed the external sympathy and validation. But this is not helping her, only trapping her further in these fantasies.
If after hearing this, you can still acknowledge that you care for her, please let her know that, and that you are willing to care for her while knowing the truth.
Help her, without enabling her.

I know this is going to have repercussions in our community, but she is still an individual in need of help, even if it isn't because she has cancer."

It's really, honestly, not hard to prove that you have cancer, there's about a bazillion treatments, test results, medical paraphernalia, forms from health insurance, from doctors. You're in hospital a LOT. It's a whirlwind, and it's nothing like what you're describing above.

Also, always a good reference in these types of situation: A Beginner's Guide To Faking Your Death On The Internet (Youtube link)
posted by Elysum at 5:17 PM on August 23, 2011 [7 favorites]

Go down to the police station with all the documentation you have, including the in for for the fundraisers. Report this fraud, let them handle it.

posted by jbenben at 5:17 PM on August 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Except doesn't Sheila live off a settlement?

No. Sheila lives off the money that was raised from the last fundraiser she conned people into having for her.
posted by MexicanYenta at 5:20 PM on August 23, 2011 [12 favorites]

One thing you might want to clarify: do you know about these fundraisers through your own experience, or did Sheila tell you about them? Because if it was the latter, perhaps they never happened either?
posted by lollusc at 5:22 PM on August 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

nthing the call the police, you might be witness to fraud. (on preview, lollusc makes a good point)

She sounds like a hypochondriac, as in a person who genuinely believes that she has some disease and will die from it, regardless of what the doctors say.

My grandmother once called her sisters claiming that surgery was scheduled to amputate her leg. Was it? Of course not. But she was absolutely convinced that it was going to happen. In her mind, it was a certainty.

However, she'd never take money from anyone to pay for that surgery unless she'd already been billed for it. And if anyone had given her money, she wouldn't have touched it since she was going to need it to pay for said surgery.
posted by Neekee at 5:24 PM on August 23, 2011

Look. The way this works is, Sheila is sick. She currently lives in a world that is responding to her sickness in a way that won't let her get any better - a world where she is able to lie and get folks to give her money as a reward for that lie, a world where she is most likely living in a delusional state and really starting to believe the lie herself. She has no incentive or clear opportunity to get better. And, her sickness is hurting other people. This is a terrible world for Sheila to be in.

You have the power to move her from that world to a world where, no matter what else happens, her sickness will not responded to like this ever again.

Call the police.
posted by SMPA at 5:38 PM on August 23, 2011 [11 favorites]

Her story is clearly false.

When we saw her a day or so later, there was no evidence of a bandage on her head (though she does have long thick hair

There would almost certainly be a large shaved patch on her head, in the unlikely event that she was release from hospital 2 days after brain surgery.

This surgery was also scheduled at 11pm last night, another favor from a local surgeon. Her estranged husband was supposedly the person sending my husband and other friends text updates on her condition, though oddly, he used her phone to do so. He texted that one point she apparently was in a brief “coma;” at another in “shock.” But then, apparently the hospital sent her home at 2am because she was “doing well” and is sleeping at home as I post.

There is absolutely no way that anyone, anywhere, has gone into a brain surgery, been operated on, been in a coma, come out of a coma, and released within 3 hours. No way whatsoever. This is a lie so outrageous that it beggars belief. Setting a broken ankle would take longer than that.

She is lying about her illness. Therefore, the fundraising was fraudulent. It does seem like a matter for the police, irrespective of whether she has a mental illness or not. Perhaps she is mentally ill. Perhaps she is just a scam artist. Either way, the cops can deal with it.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:59 PM on August 23, 2011

Except doesn't Sheila live off a settlement?

Sheila claims to live off a settlement, from being forced into prostitution as a child.

I would be thrilled beyond measure to learn that a child forced into prostitution had received a sufficient settlement in a civil case subsequent to a successful criminal prosecution to live off of as an adult. I am somewhat doubtful that this is what's going on here.

I recommend reading I had brain surgery, what's your excuse? It's a wonderful book, it gives some of the flavor of what having brain surgery (in this case for a benign mass) is like, and what the recovery was like for the author, and, of course, you can lend it around to all your friends. It's a quick read, after all.
posted by endless_forms at 6:10 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

The whole thing sounds like a big scam to me, too ---- like everyone else notes, the whole alledged medical timeline sounds extremely improbable.

And the part about the child prostitution ring? I'm gonna call scam on that too. If either of her parents had EVER been held responsible for either actual child abuse or even just making their daughter available to an abusive ring, they would not have been entrusted with their grandchildren. (Purely anecdotally, but: my brother-in-law's father did several years hard time for abusing some of his grandchildren; one condition of his release is a lifetime ban from being within x distance of any small children, related to him or not. He is not allowed near schools, for instance, and would certainly NEVER be considered a posible guardian.)
posted by easily confused at 6:16 PM on August 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

Jesus H. I know that I should give this woman may be mentally ill and that I should give her the benefit of the doubt, but if she thinks of glioblastoma as somehow glamorous, I would like to disabuse her of that notion.

A dear friend (and ex-SO) died of inoperable glioblastoma last year, at the age of 50, after 18 months of treatment that included chemo, radiation, anticonvulsants (to combat the seizures that the tumor caused) and steroids (to keep down the swelling of the tumor). At the time of his death, he was nearly blind and unable to walk or care for himself in any way. He died on Christmas Day and left behind his elderly father and two teenage sons.

I hope this woman never knows what it's really like to have brain cancer. It's nothing like Love Story or Dying Young.
posted by virago at 6:20 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Shenanigans - both the illness and the child prostitution settlement.

Call the police and if you know the people who donated personally, inform them as well so they can contact the police. I imagine that the complaint would be have more weight if they are included in the orginial police report.
posted by guster4lovers at 6:35 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

My boyfriend's high school friend called around 11:30 PM one Friday night to tell him he was dying of cancer and to say goodbye. He wanted him / us to drive down to LA to see him one last time. He begged him / us to leave right away and drive through the night. BF said he'd drive down in the morning. They got off the phone when the ambulance arrived.

We woke up and started calling LA area hospitals to find him. Then my BF tried calling his family back east, while wondering if all of them were already in LA. Turns out none of them were, as the story was entirely untrue.

That's just another datapoint about fictitious cancer involving a fake hospital admission around midnight.
posted by slidell at 6:51 PM on August 23, 2011

I just returned from the funeral of someone whose glioblastoma killed her after 9 agonizing months. Believe me when I say that sheila is 100%, irrefutably full of the worst kind of shit. Drop her like a bad fucking habit. This makes me sick, even though I know it must be her mental illness. But really, fuck her and tell everyone you know that she is completely fucked.
posted by tristeza at 7:40 PM on August 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

Her back-story reminds me a lot of the Kern County child abuse cases, or some of the other similar incidents that happened in the 1980s/1990s.
posted by Houstonian at 8:00 PM on August 23, 2011

Actually, this story reminds me a lot of this awesome story without the fraud.
posted by jbenben at 8:37 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Elysum's advice is spot-on.

It's not fraud, folks. It's mental health issues. The "scamming" is a symptom and the term "scamming" indicates an understanding of the situation that she probably does not have at this time. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that she believes these stories herself.

I had a friend who had an episode when she stopped taking her medication. It took about a month for it to get bad enough for people to generally notice (during this time, she was telling similar stories to Shiela's and permanently failed to regain custody of her children due to missing a court date and not being together enough to get the paperwork together) and went quickly downhill even from there. The police could not take her to the hospital until she was a threat to herself or others. She spent well over a month in a psychiatric hospital.

If Shiela eventually gets her head on straight, then the music community can wonder about getting their money back. Shiela's mental health should be the number one priority at this point and she does need your community -- to help get her the help that she needs.
posted by lover at 8:55 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Shelia sounds very much like a former friend of mine whom I'll call Sarah (because that's the name she gave us, and although that was the name on her driver's license who the hell knows if that's really true). She was somewhat new to our social circle, and we met via my partner's work. Irish accent and a claimed Belfast upbringing, but we live in middle America so that's not exactly something we'd be able to spot if it was faked. She claimed a whole lot of things actually, none of which were backed up with lots of evidence but which we were just credible/gullible enough to accept. She also claimed to have cancer, ovarian cancer in her case. This was a hell of a thing for us, because we'd had a very good friend and roommate die young from cancer not more than three years before this. So as you can imagine, we were very sympathetic to her.

There were many tearful moments, and a lot of emotional support given on our part, although fortunately not much financial support. There was also lots of dating weirdness and drama with friends, and emergency medical problems seemed to crop up whenever drama was imminent, along with some extremely wild stories and erratic behavior, things like her father being a higher-up in the PIRA, being raised by a foster family in Iowa, etc. Very similar events to what you describe with Shelia happened too - late-night emergency texts/phone calls about going into the hospital, impossibly short hospital stays for major surgeries, texts from different numbers from people we never met or spoke to who she claimed were taking care of her, etc. What eventually tipped us off was that we knew from very recent experience what happened when you were treated with the kind of chemo regimen she claimed to be receiving, and she wasn't showing any of those signs. After enough of this, I called her on it in private, and she admitted/claimed that it was all fake, and that what she actually had was borderline personality disorder and had stopped taking her meds. I'm not sure if that's true either, but she definitely didn't have cancer, and a lot of her other behavior matched with a BPD diagnosis.

After this, we pretty much immediately cut her out of our life. I felt a little bit bad for her, but...she *knew* that we had lost someone very dear to us a few years ago to cancer. I know that her mental illness drove her to fake cancer, but doing that to us was not something that I could ever, ever forgive. I hope she got help somewhere, and I hope she didn't mess up too many other people in the process the way she did us, but we weren't going to stick around to find out.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I agree with those above who have said that based on your information, I highly doubt Shelia has cancer, and that she most likely needs immediate help for a severe mental disorder rather than this being a scam. However, were it me, I don't think I could forgive her either. That's just me though.
posted by hackwolf at 9:59 PM on August 23, 2011

If Shiela eventually gets her head on straight, then the music community can wonder about getting their money back. Shiela's mental health should be the number one priority at this point and she does need your community -- to help get her the help that she needs.

No, I dunno. I think fraud and mental illness can and often do coexist. Clearly this is beyond some sort of calculated scam, and Sheila is getting emotional and psychological stuff from the lie as much or more than money, but that doesn't mean other people don't have stuff going on in their lives too and need to protect themselves from being squeezed and used like this. Aside from anything else, going along with the lie isn't helping Sheila get real help. I don't see any contradiction between shutting it down and protecting yourselves and pushing Sheila towards real treatment for her actual problems.
posted by crabintheocean at 10:07 PM on August 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

Another +1 for this being a story.
My aunt had brain surgery and was in hospital with a shaved head, stitches, drips etc and was in intensive care for several days.

And hmmm, what a metaphor of mental illness it is that she's chosen brain cancer as her fictitious malady.
posted by honey-barbara at 11:23 PM on August 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

IIRC whether Sheila is mostly mentally ill, or mostly a scammer, depends on what her motives are.

If she fakes illness for material gain that's considered malingering. The "fact" that she has a source of income that she hasn't credibly explained, and the fact that she is receiving money for her present illness, suggests malingering.

If she were doing it mostly for attention then it would be a factitious disorder. Clearly attention is one of her motives. But who knows whether she really is the pathetic figure she portrays herself as. Some people basically live their lives through fake personas to scam others and feed off their emotions, and it's shocking how convincing they are. But if this is Sheila's main source of i come, as it seems to be, then there is your answer.

IANAD of course, opinion worth what you paid for it, and since she's definitely scamming it's kinda moot anyway. But for safety's sake consider the possibility that she could be less mentally ill, and more ruthless, than she seems.
posted by tel3path at 1:04 AM on August 24, 2011

My husband mainly sees her as a music colleague and also is reluctant to accuse anyone of lying about a fatal illness. I feel like there’s red flags everywhere. She has not asked us for money, but has taken several thou from other people at this point, and I’m pretty freaked out by the whole situation.

This woman has gotten thousands of dollars by lying about this -- is it supposed to be more noble that she claimed to have a fatal illness instead of needing car repairs or something? There are others with actual, non-fake, fatal illnesses who these people could have helped with the money instead -- would you be reluctant to reveal this if you knew that the money would have been otherwise donated to someplace like the American Brain Tumor Association?

This is fraud, just as if she was running a phony investment scheme. Maybe she has a mental illness, or maybe she's just very good at scamming people -- you don't have to try and figure that out, she's committed a crime. Maybe the scamming is a symptom, but that doesn't mean she hasn't stolen this money from the donors.

She doesn't seem to be a very close friend, and I don't think you need to place yourself in the position of trying to convince her to get evaluated for mental illness -- she could go to the psychiatric hospital if she chose to, and if she doesn't want to, it's just as lover said above -- the police have to wait until she's a danger to herself or others. You don't want to be one of the others she's a danger to.

Most brain surgery involves sawing through the skull. Surgeons don't like to have hair anywhere near the incision, and it's not a small incision -- and preserving the patient's hair is considered much less important. Like many other types of surgery, the area is shaved -- so, she'd have a lot less of that long thick hair a few days later. She'd be in intensive care after surgery, not at home. However, people can be diagnosed with brain tumors without having symptoms that would be obvious to everyone, and if a glioblastoma shows up on the MRI it's going to be pretty clear surgery is needed to get it out without doing a biopsy first -- so those factors being missing aren't clear signs of fraud -- but there are plenty of others.

It seems like you might have asked this question because you are worried that your husband's new friend might be the sort of person who takes extreme advantage of people and can't be trusted, but your husband doesn't agree. You can report the fraud yourself if you like, and you can post some anonymous explanations about why she is lying on forums if you wish -- pointing out the ways in which she is not credible, especially any details she has posted in the forum that don't make sense.

You mention several things that she has told your husband in the course of getting to know him, rather than you hearing them yourself. Perhaps he's reluctant to accuse her of lying because he believes her -- if he's given her money, he might not want to admit to himself that he was taken in.
posted by yohko at 3:02 AM on August 24, 2011

"people can be diagnosed with brain tumors without having symptoms that would be obvious to everyone, and if a glioblastoma shows up on the MRI it's going to be pretty clear surgery is needed to get it out without doing a biopsy first"

I have two objections to this argument:
1. if she didn't have symptoms that would be obvious to everyone, how did she get the MRI? MRIs are very expensive.
2. speaking from personal experience which I realize is not universal, just because you have a huge mass in your brain does not mean anybody is going to rush straight to surgery. Even suspecting it's a glioma (I spotted "high grade glioma???" in my Dad's notes) doesn't mean they're going to immediately make with the slicey-slicey. He had to have his biopsy first, to confirm that it really was a glioma (actually it was a stage 4 astrocytoma) and during the months while he was waiting on the emergency list, they kept him on steroids in the hope that the 4-centimetre mass was benign and that reducing the swelling would improve matters.

YMMV of course, it's just that my personal experience doesn't match any details of Sheila's story, including these.

Otherwise, everything yohko said.
posted by tel3path at 4:16 AM on August 24, 2011

I have astrocytoma grade II. I had a biopsy (only a biopsy-- the cancer in my temporal lobe is basically inoperable) in May and it took hours and hours. I am very very insistent on things, and I successfully argued myself into a release about 36 hours after my arrival to the hospital, which was notable enough that all of the nurses and doctors kept stopping by to see how perky I was. (I just wanted the hell out.)

I confirm that there's no way this woman is telling the truth.

On the other hand, you shouldn't make assumptions about the hair. I had a pretty large amount of hair loss from my radiation, on both sides of my head, but it's underneath the top layer of hair, and my hair is very dark and thick. Nobody ever, ever, notices. (I wear a hat when out, to prevent wind from blowing it up.)
posted by miss tea at 4:22 AM on August 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

Hmm. This whole thing bothers me for reasons of personal history, so I know I'm getting a bit obsessive about replying here. But anyway. It is possible for glioblastomas to be asymptomatic until they're really enormous. And I suppose her wacky behaviour so far could have been caused not by her personality, but by a tumour that's been there all along.

I see why your husband feels bad about calling her out. I'm a stranger on the internet reading hearsay, not a doctor who knows enough about this subject to make a judgement call of any kind even if I were next to Sheila. I don't know how much of a reach it is, but it does seem that there are scenarios where Sheila could actually be telling the truth about having a glioma.

However, you can knock down particular details but you can't play whack-a-mole with the whole story, and at least one detail (the speed of going through surgery and being discharged) is certain to be absolutely impossible.

I could even imagine a scenario where her story is partly true: she could have an inoperable brain tumour that is causing the symptoms of what appears to be her mental illness. (I know someone with just such a tumour, and she is weird and annoying in all kinds of ways.) It could be that the only part she's lying about is the grade of the tumour and the fact of having the surgery; that could be how she makes her living.
posted by tel3path at 4:57 AM on August 24, 2011

Hmm. This whole thing bothers me for reasons of personal history, so I know I'm getting a bit obsessive about replying here. But anyway. It is possible for glioblastomas to be asymptomatic until they're really enormous. And I suppose her wacky behaviour so far could have been caused not by her personality, but by a tumour that's been there all along.

This is true. My father-in-law had emergency surgery to remove his glioblastoma a year and a half ago, after he presented at the ER with a bad headache that he thought was from a minor car accident. It was a seven-centimeter (!) mass when they removed it, which is unfathomably huge when you're talking about something that is crowding out your brain. In retrospect, he had been a little erratic for a few weeks before the emergency surgery, but this story still doesn't check out. Glioblastomas are known for having an extremely accelerated growth rate; my FIL's surgeon told us the tumor had probably been growing for less than six months, and the thing was goddamned enormous. In the unlikely case that Sheila is indeed a cancer patient, it doesn't explain this kind of pathological lying over such a long period of time.

And, more damning, as a few people have already pointed out, is that this midnight surgery is major invasive brain surgery. It's not an outpatient procedure. They're excising a large cancerous mass that is directly adjacent to really important bits in your brain. The surgery takes many hours, and after you have been operated on, you are bedridden for a lengthy period of time while the piece they cut out of your skull heals. We're talking half-of-your-head-shaved, Frankenstein's-monster-looking scars over a significant portion of your head, unable to move or function for several days.

Sheila's full of it, and you at least owe it to your husband's contemporaries to make sure she doesn't bilk any more money out of them with her "fund-raisers."
posted by Mayor West at 5:31 AM on August 24, 2011

It's not fraud, folks. It's mental health issues. The "scamming" is a symptom and the term "scamming" indicates an understanding of the situation that she probably does not have at this time. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that she believes these stories herself.

Your certainty is unwarranted. We have no idea what's going on with her mental health, and no one can diagnose her over the internet. What we do know is that her actions constitute fraud.

I'd be pretty surprised if she believed these stories. In order to really believe them she'd have to be acutely delusional. She would be very unlikely to make up corroborating evidence (like the texts) if she were delusional.

Regardless, this woman's mental health issues are not the responsibility of the group of people she's scammed. Report this to the police.
posted by OmieWise at 5:44 AM on August 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

She's lying, and then lying even further to cover her ass. Hospitals might do emergency surgeries at 11 pm or midnight, but for the most part they're scheduled in the early morning. There's no way she would be released after three hours. I also can't see any doctors performing surgery for a friend at a friend rate. That's ethically wrong, and the hospital handles the finances, not the doctor.

This woman has mental issues, and needs to be treated immediately.

Side note: "Sheila" sounds like my mother *and* my estranged husband. MeFi mail me if you're in southern Alabama. I don't talk to my mom, so this could be her. Also, I have crappy judgment. :/
posted by mitzyjalapeno at 8:21 AM on August 24, 2011

My step-grandmother was always erratic, unpleasant and bizarre (from early adulthood forward,) and it got worse right near the end. The bizarreness was off the charts, people were openly avoiding her, and we all felt really guilty when it turned out she had a massive tumor (they found out way too late to do anything about it, if they even knew - I was a teenager at the time, and I'm not certain if they knew it before or after the autopsy.) Her experience doesn't match up with Sheila's behavior at all and I strongly suspect that Grandma A had one or more untreated Axis I disorders long before the cancer.

I also have an out-of-town acquaintance with brain cancer - his hospital stays have been measured in days and weeks, long enough in one case for friends to learn he was sick, come back from vacation, and visit multiple times on different days. He didn't even have surgery for one of them.

I really think that cancer is not on Sheila's list of personal challenges.

I hope, Anonymous, that you've already called the police.
posted by SMPA at 9:08 AM on August 24, 2011

Mod note: From the OP:
You can mark it "answered" I think I've got what responses I need. Also reassure mitzyjalapeno that we're not in Alabama.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 11:40 AM on August 24, 2011

this sounds suspiciously like somebody my family used to know, and makes me wonder if you are in pittsburgh. on the other hand, people like this are absolutely crawling everywhere.
posted by timory at 6:00 PM on August 24, 2011

sorry if it makes my post above seem more cynical, but I recommend my 'sympathetic' approach, not only if you have any sympathy whatsoever, but even if you think she's just a lying douche-bag.

From a history of witnessing 'internet lulz', the sympathetic approach is recommended to avoid the inevitable backlash and splintering of friends groups when initially, several people will go "No! Why would you say such things!" and other people feel betrayed, and these two groups will go at each other hammer & tongs, and there will be negative after-effects even when everyone realises that yes, it is a scam (and the defendy people feel even more betrayed because they *defended* her, yada yada).

I'm guessing at some level, you're aware of that, which is why you were reluctant to conclude 'obvious bullshit' without mefi backup. Your every instinct is of course, correct, it's utter bullshit. Now it's just a case of defusing it with as little drama as possible (which, incidentally, she will probably dislike - people don't get to the point where they tell these kinds of stories, without getting unhealthily addicted to drama & attention, even negative).

If you phrase it in a way that is sympathetic to her, and help the people who support her understand that 'the best way you can help her is to not feed into her fantasies/lies', is almost entirely oriented towards making it more likely that people will tell her *future* circles of friends the backstory. Kind folks often keep quiet about this sort of thing, not wanting to spread bad gossip, but then the cycle just repeats with a new bunch of friends/acquaintances (Kind folk also don't mention things like - that lovely acquaintance is a mean, aggressive drunk, so you don't know not to invite them to a party, where they then try and assault someone).
Helping make it harder to lie, without too much punishment, makes it less likely this happens again.

Good luck!
posted by Elysum at 12:25 AM on August 25, 2011

I knew someone like this. She had an "inoperable brain tumor" when I met her in 2006, along with a ton of other life drama that all seemed dubious. Five years later, she is alive and kicking and the brain tumor seems to have disappeared into thin air.
posted by amro at 12:36 PM on September 28, 2011

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