I think my friend is lying about cancer
January 12, 2013 12:18 PM   Subscribe

I have a friend who recently told everyone we know that she has been diagnosed with stage two cancer. After each doctors visit, she added new information. She told us that it was stage 2 and aggressive. Then, she told us that it had spread to the lymph nodes and more tumors were found and then that she had cancer in both her breasts. Because she is 43 years old I learned that my friend faced a hard road ahead. I learned that the younger you get it the harder the fight. I gave her money as did my other friends . She was given a lot of attention, as could be expected. Some of us promised to shave our heads in preparation for her hair loss. She said, " You shouldn't do that. Don't be so sure I won't just require natural treatments after the masectomy " I thought that she was being sort of overly optimistic since she said it had spread to her lymph nodes.

A month after she said she had a double masectomy she came to visit . She seemed completely fine. She told me that the cancer hadn't really spread and that the doctors got it all. She told her she didn't require any follow up treatment. She also said they conducted further testing and told her that the cancer only had a 5 percent chance of coming back.

I asked around and googled quite a bit .Everything I heard or read seems to indicate that this is, at best, highly unusual. My friend has a full head of hair and looks healthier than ever. She tells me that she isn't in need of any treatment and is "cured." She isn't the most honest person but I can't see her making up cancer. I feel guilty for suspecting her and just want to know if her stories are true.
posted by azuvmeod to Human Relations (81 answers total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: It appears that this question was not asked in good faith; Metafilter is not the place to pursue personal vendettas -- taz

A doctor will never tell you that your cancer is "cured". My mother is a 20+ year breast cancer survivor; the best thing they will say is that her chances of getting it again are now the same as if she had never had it before.
posted by thelonius at 12:24 PM on January 12, 2013 [6 favorites]

Where is the question here? If you want to know if she is lying, no one here can tell you that. Only your friend and her doctor know, and neither will tell you.
posted by Tanizaki at 12:24 PM on January 12, 2013 [7 favorites]

You have nothing to gain from knowing the answer to this.
posted by colin_l at 12:25 PM on January 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

She is lying. Seek therapy and maybe get a lawyer to get your money back.

There is no way any of us will ever be able to give you the answer to whatever question you are asking.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:26 PM on January 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

You didn't actually ask a question. So I'm going to assume the question is "Is my friend lying?".

It sure sounds like it to me (cancer in both breasts but stage 2? Um...) but we have absolutely no way to know for sure. We don't know your friend. It sounds very suspicious to me, though.

You have nothing to gain from knowing the answer to this.

You probably missed the part about her friend receiving a bunch of money.
posted by Justinian at 12:28 PM on January 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

Doctors will do a mastectomy without recommending chemotherapy, radiation, or other follow up treatments, but it depends on how the cancer is behaving.

Diagnosis and stage are only concretely determined after the mastectomy, when the proper pathology can be done. They may well have pulled lymph nodes while they were in there, at which point they'd test the nodes to determine whether the cancer had spread that far. Again, nothing is concrete until pathology results come back.

It's hard to imagine that your friend would get a double mastectomy for any reason other than cancer.

Whether or not a cancer patient does chemotherapy, radiation, or anything else is determined based on a series of factors including their age, health, and the behaviour of their cancer. You don't know enough to determine whether your friend requires more treatment, that's between her and her doctor.
posted by Stagger Lee at 12:28 PM on January 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Did she really have a double mastectomy? If she had a double mastectomy and didn't actually have cancer, she is SERIOUSLY committed to her lie.
posted by mskyle at 12:29 PM on January 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

A doctor will never tell you that your cancer is "cured".

Illustrated in this xkcd.
posted by radwolf76 at 12:29 PM on January 12, 2013 [6 favorites]

Obviously nobody is going to be able to tell you whether or not your friend is lying about having cancer. But I would suggest that if you legitimately suspect someone in your life of making something like this up, it might be a good idea to reconsider whether or not you should call her a friend.
posted by something something at 12:31 PM on January 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Sadly, this sort of thing is all too common -- my good friend's sketchy boyfriend recently pulled a similar stunt in an effort to get cash and attention from friends and family members. I honestly don't understand colin_l's comment that "You have nothing to gain from knowing the answer to this." - well, you can not give this person any more $$ and cut off all contact from a toxic individual! So there is something to gain, but you can probably never know 100% unless the friend admits it. Honestly, if this person gives you a bad, untrustworthy feeling, I would just cut my losses and do a fade out of her life....if she's not family, you don't have an obligation to stick around someone who gives you a bad gut feeling.
posted by rainbowbrite at 12:31 PM on January 12, 2013 [7 favorites]

Is it possible that your friend is just being overly optimistic about her prognosis? I mean, it sounds weird and wrong to me, but a lot of people have a severe lack of understanding about how disease and medicine work.

Nthing the idea that, if your friend actually went through with a double mastectomy, yeah, she probably has breast cancer. That's not a surgery you can schedule, like, just for funnsies.
posted by Sara C. at 12:33 PM on January 12, 2013 [7 favorites]

You probably missed the part about her friend receiving a bunch of money.

Does that really matter? If a friend came to me for money and lied about what the reason was, I certainly can't picture myself saying "I think you lied, and I want that money back."

The options are to either forget it, or cut off the friendship, but asking for the money back seems like the worst possible option.
posted by colin_l at 12:34 PM on January 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

If your friend had a double mastectomy, recovery time is the the 3-6 week range. None of my friends have required this surgery so far, but everyone I know who had a big surgery which required a hospital stay (you're in the hospital for three or four days after mastectomy) was pretty knocked out for at least a few weeks afterward. I don't know your friend, but it would seem odd to me if someone had this surgery and appeared completely fine - no pain, no concerns with stretching, no limited mobility, no swelling - four weeks afterward. I have been told that your chest - without or without reconstructive surgery - stays pretty tender for quite a while, and this can change how you dress for a while.

If your friend actually stayed with you for several days (can't tell from your post exactly what "visit" means) one month post-surgery, it would seem extraordinarily unlikely that she wouldn't mention or evidence any post-op symptoms.
posted by Frowner at 12:37 PM on January 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Maybe she has the breast cancer gene and wanted to get the mascetomy as a precaution but felt like she had to make up a story for her friends to "understand." I'm not excusing her behavior, just trying to think why she would make something like this up.
posted by katypickle at 12:40 PM on January 12, 2013

There is also usually a drain involved and continuing post-surgical care...having assisted someone who had a single masectomy, there is also difficulty with lifting, carrying, and driving afterwards, but I'm not sure how long afterward.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:41 PM on January 12, 2013

My friend has a full head of hair

If she didn't have chemo (which could be true if they do, in fact, think they got it all) then she wouldn't lose her hair. And not all chemo patients lose their hair either.
posted by magnetsphere at 12:43 PM on January 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

I mean, did she talk about the surgery at all? Or talk about any after-effects? Conceivably someone could have a really fast, great recovery, but it would just be weird to have been really upfront with your friends about the diagnosis and the outcome but then not mention anything like "and the surgeon was really great/awful/friendly/informative/close-mouthed" or "and they use this bizarre tube" or "my roommate at the hospital would just not shut up"....Everyone I know who has had a major surgical event has told some stories about it to friends - sometimes just jokes, sometimes long detailed narratives, but something. Unless your friend is someone who is a very, very private person - well, it sounds very odd that someone would have had a really significant surgery, bounce back right away and have no anecdotes about the experience.

I would worry a lot if it seemed very likely that a close friend had told a lie of this magnitude.
posted by Frowner at 12:43 PM on January 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Thank you all. You are right I didn't really ask a question as much as what to hear if her stories sounded right. She is still getting money from other friends and one is really broke and it seems wrong that she might keep conning people. I can't be sure she really had the surgery other than her telling me. I just know that she never complained of pain and though she said she had cancer in her lymph nodes she was very mobile with her arms and was taking a transatlantic flight 2 weeks after she said she had surgery. I understand that there is not much to gain but I just want to stop having these dark thoughts. Unfortunately, with each answer, I'm suspecting my bad feelings are on target. Again, thank you.
posted by azuvmeod at 12:43 PM on January 12, 2013

It's an emotional roller coaster and an information overload. There's no solid information, and a bunch of different specialists with their own plans. It takes a long time for the whole thing to become a coherent narrative.

Better to give her the benefit of the doubt than to demand a cancer patient prove her diagnosis and flash her fresh scars.

Maybe it's still too fresh to me, but I find it appalling that anyone would accuse a cancer patient of lying. Better to assume good faith, everyone will be happier.

If you don't want to have "dark thoughts," stop having them.
posted by Stagger Lee at 12:46 PM on January 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

taking a transatlantic flight 2 weeks after she said she had surgery.

I have cared for two people after surgeries involving the lymph nodes, one of which was a mastectomy as I mentioned above, and I highly doubt this would be in any way enjoyable or comfortable. I'm sorry to hear that your friend who is broke has been giving money. It is extremely fishy.

That said, one of the people I cared for with cancer did keep his hair during chemo.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:47 PM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

i don't know whether or not your friend is lying but not all breast cancer patients have chemo. my mom only had radiation and takes a med instead of chemo. also, you do usually have more info after each visit. first, my mom had a diagnosis, then a biopsy, then found out it was stage 2 in the lymph nodes, then radiation, then medication. she didn't have a mastectomy.
posted by wildflower at 12:48 PM on January 12, 2013

If I really wanted to know, I would tell her I've always wondered what a cancer biopsy report looks like and I'd be fascinated to take a look.
posted by Estragon at 12:52 PM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, I should say that there is a chance that she could have been recovered enough to take a transatlantic flight two weeks later, but it would be pretty rare and not really something that a doctor would have said "sure, two weeks later, go for it". So I do suppose that there is a chance that she is extremely positive and extremely lucky. I also think that your concerns are justified, though.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:53 PM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry. I'm new to this so I don't mean to ignore any of your great responses. She just doesn't provide details at all and she isn't a private person. She is someone who I considered a friend but she is also someone who I can't cut off for career reasons. Frowner, your response was great because that is what is driving me crazy. This woman is a storyteller type . I just don't know how she would tell us that she might not lose her hair when it was stage two and agressive. It's as if she forgot to consider that people would ask about that and she was preparing us since she knew she'd have no chemo even before the surgery. She didn't complain at all of any pain and provided no detail other than , " My doctor said that I have a great prognosis and that after testing i have a 5 percent chance of it ever coming back" Maybe it's a miracle. Gee, I don't know.
posted by azuvmeod at 12:54 PM on January 12, 2013

It sounds like you are not in the same location as this friend. Do you have mutual friends in the same area? Did they visit her in the hospital?

Do you know whether she actually had a double mastectomy or not? I mean I don't think you could tell for sure unless 1) you were there 2) she didn't wear a prosthesis around you or 3) she showed you the scar tissue.

You could find a pretext to ask for the name of her oncologist, and call that oncologist and ask about making donations to help with (friend's name) cancer treatment, and see what they say.

How to Avoid Breast Cancer Fraud
posted by bunderful at 12:55 PM on January 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Pretext for oncologist, if you really want to do that: "Friend X in your city doesn't like the oncologist to whom she was referred - can I give her your doctor's name?"
posted by Medieval Maven at 1:01 PM on January 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

I just called another friend to double check. She told me that our friend made it very clear that "she will only need natural remedies." Also, she told her that they cut into her chest cavity. I can't imagine confronting anyone just yet. Time will tell, I hope. Looking back, the friend in question, has told so many unlikely stories. She has duped a lot of people out of tons of money, if she is lying.
posted by azuvmeod at 1:03 PM on January 12, 2013

I can't stand a liar, especially when they lie for sympathy (and money!), however...

A month ago my friend had a colonoscopy. They found a large tumor and polyps all through her colon and up into her stomach; she was diagnosed with stage 2 colon cancer, but it hadn't metastasized. She had surgery to remove the tumor on Christmas Eve and was back at work on January 5th. She doesn't have to have chemo and the doctors told her that she had a 20% chance of recurrence. And she looks even better than she did before she had surgery.

So it's possible that your friend is telling the truth. The only way to know is to ask to see her mastectomy scars. Do you really want to do that?
posted by elsietheeel at 1:11 PM on January 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am of the belief that it is our job to expose liars and frauds, and the embarrassment of perhaps being seen as overly suspicious will be leavened by the fact that if you are wrong hey, your friend is going to be fine!

Have you ever been in touch with her parents?

My advice would be to contact her parents with some clever facebook stalking and figure out a reason to mention the cancer to them. "Me and some of XXXX's friends got together and we wanted to buy a thank you gift for her doctor, though we didn't want XXXX to know, can you tell me his name?" That's where the lies always break down--the medical facility, the real nurses and staff who would have to have treated her in surgery and chemo. She and her family would know them all really well. If you can't ask her folks, ask her about them directly and see what she says.

Good luck!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:11 PM on January 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

So many great ideas. I'm going to try the oncologist one soon. Is it possible that her doctors got it all wrong and it didn't spread to the lymph nodes. Do oncologists make such mistakes and if so.... why doesn't she say that. It's that 5 percent thing that seems the fishiest to me.
posted by azuvmeod at 1:13 PM on January 12, 2013

Ok, this isn't totally clear... Does she, at this point, have boobs or not? I'm not sure how common it is to do a double mastectomy + lymph nodes and breast reconstruction at the same time....
posted by jrobin276 at 1:14 PM on January 12, 2013 [9 favorites]

If she is not claiming that a doctor said she is "cured", my earlier point is moot; I am sorry if I misunderstood you.
posted by thelonius at 1:18 PM on January 12, 2013

So many great ideas. I'm going to try the oncologist one soon. Is it possible that her doctors got it all wrong and it didn't spread to the lymph nodes. Do oncologists make such mistakes and if so.... why doesn't she say that. It's that 5 percent thing that seems the fishiest to me.

Like I said earlier, they don't know for sure until they do a pathology report on the lymph nodes. That would determine treatment options and staging of the cancer.

The scenario that you described on behalf of your friend is entirely possible.
posted by Stagger Lee at 1:19 PM on January 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also, an oncologist would never tell someone they need natural remedies. Such 'remedies' exist, but they are not....tested or generally endorsed by the medical world. Theres a great little three part documentary on breast cancer done by Dawn Porter (UK)...maybe you can track it down?
posted by jrobin276 at 1:20 PM on January 12, 2013

When i was first told I did some googling and it said that if you get breast cancer when you are under 50, it's very challenging. When she told me it was stage 2 that spread to the lymph nodes and was "agresive" we all thought she would die and she acted and said things that made it seem as if she was about to die. She told me that the doctor said that she would lose her hair and it would be a "long hard road." So, I'm thinking the doctor went in and it wasn't as bad as she predicted.
Elsietheeel, makes it seem as if it is plausible . I really hope she isn't lying. It's just so depressing to think that anyone would be that nuts or cynical to use cancer to get money or attention.
posted by azuvmeod at 1:20 PM on January 12, 2013

[azuvmeon, AskMe isn't really a chat forum and you're being pretty hyper-responsive here by our standards. Please just let the answers come in as they will at this point. ]
posted by restless_nomad at 1:24 PM on January 12, 2013

This is, beat for beat, exactly what recently happened to comedian Tig Notaro. Stage 2 in both breasts, not contained, double mastectomy, surprisingly successful surgery that obviates the need for chemotherapy, and 5% chance of relapse. Every single one of those things happened to Notaro, and she's been pretty public about them.

Now, I can't tell you what to make of that information. On the one hand, I suppose your friend might have just heard that story and copied it. On the other, that story does prove that what she's saying is possible. But it's worth knowing about.
posted by Ragged Richard at 1:25 PM on January 12, 2013 [9 favorites]

I just don't know how she would tell us that she might not lose her hair when it was stage two and agressive.It's as if she forgot to consider that people would ask about that and she was preparing us since she knew she'd have no chemo even before the surgery.

like i mentioned my mom didn't have chemo and had stage 2. there are more treatment options today and we knew before the surgery she wasn't having chemo. my mom is on a med that she has to take daily for 5 years and if she is still cancer-free then she can stop taking it.

also, until after the biopsy results we didn't know the extent of how serious it was. getting a cancer diagnosis is scary and you don't know all the facts upfront. it is easy to assume the worst at first and then find out breast cancer is really quite treatable for many women. i think that your friend's treatment is plausible. she may or may not be lying, but personally, you sound a bit obsessed with this which doesn't seem all that healthy to me.
posted by wildflower at 1:38 PM on January 12, 2013

Also, she told her that they cut into her chest cavity.

Um, i'm pretty sure that this isn't typical for breast cancer surgery, and that any situation where it would be necessary isn't likely to be coupled with a miraculously swift recovery.
posted by Good Brain at 1:41 PM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Maybe it's somewhere in the middle. Your friend might not have been lying just exaggerating or expressing the worst case scenario.
posted by Vaike at 1:41 PM on January 12, 2013

OP can't even be sure she had a mastectomy.
posted by megatherium at 1:43 PM on January 12, 2013

she told us that it had spread to the lymph nodes .... [later] She told me that the cancer hadn't really spread a

This seems odd to me. In my experience docs are VERY cautious about this sort of thing, as they should be. It seems unlikely that an oncologist would say that she had cancer in her lymph nodes without first performing a biopsy.

Of course, lap results can be misreported.

On the other hand it could be that she misunderstood. Cancer treatment is scary and weird, doctors are giving you a lot of information all at once.

posted by bunderful at 1:51 PM on January 12, 2013

It is not uncommon for people to be startlingly ignorant of medical terminology and information, and for that information to change, but cancer scams are becoming more common as people hear about successful local fundraising and the like. Cancer info is also just much more common as most people know of someone who has dealt with it.
You could ask her a question she would have to know the answer to, like the name of her surgeon or doctors or hospital, etc. but you might be tipping her off that you know she's lying if she's lying. But if she is lying, I doubt she'd continue to be a career asset.
If she is lying, she's doing a remarkably crappy job of it, but then, of the people I have heard of in the last few years who have been caught for cancer scams, that's par for the course: either knowing nothing or sticking to a script. As scams go, the only way not to be found out eventually is to disappear, and these things suck because by taking advantage of people's reasons for helping, people become less inclined to help those who genuinely need it.
Remark on her amazingly fast recovery from major surgery. You could say lots of things. Unless she may flee, I don't see a downside in asking a few questions, especially if she is still getting money from your friends.
posted by provoliminal at 1:53 PM on January 12, 2013

Just because the friend is telling the OP things a doctor wouldn't tell her doesn't mean she's lying.

When my dad got diagnosed with a brain tumour - which caused him expressive aphasia - I remember talking to him on the phone and he explained to me "I, I, two years."

Now, no hospital staff would tell me anything over the phone; I had to take days off work and sit in the ward waiting for the doctors to make their rounds in the hope that they might get around to us and be willing to explain things to me. I believe they were giving information to my mother, but she simply wasn't able to either take it in or recount it to me.

I eventually was able to figure out that he had a Grade IV astrocytoma. Only a tiny percentage of patients with astrocytoma are still alive after two years. The reason he was telling me "two years" was because he had a complex occult/New Age worldview in which he could control outcomes by believing in them. So what he was expressing was his determination to believe that he would survive at least another two years. It was the truth as he saw it; that was how the diagnosis presented itself to his understanding.

Your friend isn't necessarily a reliable source of information about her illness, but most people aren't committed to 100% hairsplitting accuracy all the time. If she believes in natural remedies, then she will have told herself she would only need "natural remedies" after being discharged. No doctor would have told her that, but if she wasn't going to need much if any post-operative treatment, she probably editorialized that part herself.

Since there apparently are true scenarios that match your friend's, you should probably believe her until you have no alternative but to think she's lying. It would be terrible if people became conditioned by internet Muchhausen's to treat sick people with even more suspicion than they already do.
posted by tel3path at 2:00 PM on January 12, 2013 [11 favorites]

You say she is a storyteller type and it seems like there is history with this friend that is making you more suspicious of her tale. One way to address this might be to not give her cash but instead try to do things to help her out like cooking dinner or cleaning the house/laundry if she needs it.

I don't recommend reading too much into medical information about what's going on with her that you hear through a gossip grapevine. Research shows that sadly, a large proportion of patients don't understand what their condition really is or what the discharge instructions are when they leave the hospital. Hearing the information as it's already been mangled by passing through a telephone game pretty much guarantees that there will be misunderstandings.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 2:17 PM on January 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

I have an acquaintance of years past who had a similar habit of telling tall tales such as this...she never went the cancer route, but she allegedly had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and a few other conditions. Only when another person in our group had a relative who was dx'd with MS and started earnestly (and honestly, looking for hope and insight) this acquaintance about doctors, meds, treatments, that it became apparent (many of us had suspected, anyway; not only this but many of her other stories over the years) that she did not have MS and didn't know much more about it than she'd perhaps seen on TV or read in the library (this was very pre-Internet).

A friend of mine discovered a lump in her breast at age 24. Underwent one mastectomy, then another as the disease spread (as you mentioned, the younger you are, the more aggressive breast cancer is). Several years of chemo and radiation, hair loss, all of that....she died shortly after her 30th birthday. My Mom had a lumpectomy at age 52, the tumor was less than 2cm, but she was still in some post-operative pain (and had a drain attached) for several days while recuperating at home after the surgery. She required no chemo but did undergo 27 weeks of radiation, and it tired her out sufficiently for me to say without doubt that she would not have been up for a two-hour flight to New York much less a trans-Atlantic undertaking during the first month after her surgery.
posted by Oriole Adams at 2:36 PM on January 12, 2013

Nobody can tell you whether she's lying. My only advice is this: Make sure you know what you will do if you're wrong. If you do anything -- including sniffing around her oncologist -- and if people find out that *you* lied to a cancer patient about having a friend who had cancer, because you thought she was a scam artist? Just make sure you have thought through how that will go for you, particularly if this is someone closely connected to your work. When you say things that aren't true, it can get complicated; you could ask for the number of her oncologist for her friend, and she could offer to send it to your friend directly and ask for your friend's email. Or she could ask which friend. Or she could ask what kind of cancer your friend has or where your friend lives. What will you say?

Just make sure you've thought about it, and about how it will go if you're wrong. Whatever you decide to do, you should be okay with what will happen if you are right and if you are wrong.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 3:02 PM on January 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

My friend had Stage 2 breast cancer in one breast, had a mastectomy, and didn't need chemo or radiation. Made a great recovery and has been cancer-free for six years.

On the other hand, people lie. So. You don't really know what's going on, but there isn't really any way to take this further at the moment. I would probably just keep assessing the situation.

Taking a long flight only two weeks after a double mastectomy with lymph node involvement would almost certainly be against doctor's orders, but people do do reckless things against doctor's orders after surgery. Similarly, people who have been diagnosed with serious illnesses do say "My doctor tells me I only need natural remedies" when what the doctor has actually said was "You really need these prescription medications, but I can't force you to take them; the raspberry leaf tea isn't going to help you, but it won't do you any harm".
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:07 PM on January 12, 2013 [7 favorites]

Over the past 20 years, I have had an acquaintance, a friend, and an ex, all lie about having cancer. In that time I have also lost an aunt, an uncle, two cousins, a dear friend, and several acquaintances to cancer; as well as knowing several other relatives and acquaintances fighting cancer successfully.

In all three of the cases of lying about cancer, I just "had a feeling" they were not being truthful. Their behaviour, and things about the whole situation, just did not "fit" with all the other ones i knew of/was around. I backed off from each, was supportive on the surface (the ex was already an ex, the friend was no longer a close friend at the time), but otherwise took a wait and see attitude. Each one of these was exposed (not by me) as a liar within a year of the original lie.

My suggestion to you is to do the same ... be outwardly supportive in word and action, but don't give money or great amounts of time, and wait to see what comes of this. YOU don't need to be the person to "out" her. If it is that important to you to prove her wrong (or right), then do indeed be prepared for whatever the aftermath.
posted by batikrose at 3:24 PM on January 12, 2013 [12 favorites]

i just read the lying disease by cienna madrid, a great article about faking cancer.

i can't imagine not wanting to know, myself.
posted by anthropomorphic at 3:26 PM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

What batikrose said - there was a person in a social circle from years ago who faked cancer and got a free ride of rent and food and spending money for nearly a year, then moved to another city. A lot of people had a feeling that something just wasn't *right*. I'd trust that feeling. Don't give any money unless something serves to convince you she does, indeed, have cancer and needs medical bills covered.

Is there a way to ask her cleverly who her oncology team is? Like, you have an aunt in the area who is getting a biopsy and wants to know what her options are for care?

My MIL had a double mastectomy, and although she is very much in the "I'm fine, don't need help, I'm good" camp, there was no way in damn hell she'd take a flight two weeks after her surgery.
posted by kpht at 3:33 PM on January 12, 2013

I have seen someone have a "total hysterectomy" twice. Years apart and different social circles.

Even posting their plea on Facebook both times (money was of course the goal).

I pointed this out, we are not great friends anymore but the requests for money stopped. YMMV. But people totally lie about this stuff.
posted by French Fry at 4:11 PM on January 12, 2013

Thanks all. I'm wondering though if she is being reckless and I should step in. If she chooses the natural remedies isn't she in danger of getting cancer again? I'll ask her. I guess the I'm cured and I have only a 5 percent chance of recurrence really struck me as odd, as did the fact that she was traveling and also waving her arms around so soon after what I'd suppose was a serious surgery, near that area. Time will tell. I'll be outwardly supportive but wary. I will ask her her doctors name and see what happens. I kind of don't want to know because it's really sickening that someone would do that. I guess I've been lucky to not have encountered something like this before.

Ouch, French Fry. She had to make it a total one too, eh?
posted by azuvmeod at 4:22 PM on January 12, 2013

I read a memoir about a woman who had helped a homeless girl that claimed she had AIDS-- and then later found out from the doctor when said woman became the girl's legal temporary guardian that the girl had lied about the whole thing and was actually just making herself sick by inserting poop particles into her own eye.... the girl had also lied about her past and her parents and childhood situation and was homeless by choice-- it turns out she had normal parents who knew she'd runaway to live in NYC and had no idea what had happened to her once she'd gotten there. NO. JOKE.

There are people out there like that that will do whatever they can to feel like they are cared for and that people love them-- and that lying is the only way they feel they're able to achieve this kind of love.

If you're really wanting to know if your "friend" is lying, you should ask to see her scars. My mom had a mastectomy around 15 or so years ago and had major scars-- not only on her breast, but also around her breast. It was only the past few years she'd had plastic surgery to help remove her scars, but they're still visible. After 2 weeks, she'd have MAJOR scars and there would be no way to automatically correct that!
posted by camylanded at 5:01 PM on January 12, 2013

Feel free to message me (so you don't have to threadsit) but I have witnessed a fake cancer scam in action up-close and would be happy to tell you what I saw/learned. I won't be able to answer your question for sure, but maybe I can help you with my experience. Thankfully my money was not involved, but that of others was.
posted by emjaybee at 6:20 PM on January 12, 2013

A mastectomy is very similar to a breast reduction (which I've had). I can tell you with certainty that there is no waving of the arms until well over a month after surgery. And yes, there will be scars as someone upthread mentioned.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 6:23 PM on January 12, 2013

Just another data point, my mom had a double mastectomy without chemo or radiation to treat her aggressive but caught very early breast cancer. And she mowed the yard (on a riding mower) three weeks after her surgery. Physically she was fine. However she was put on Femara to further treat the cancer and prevent recurrence, it seriously screwed with her emotions. To the point that she was worried she would never feel normal again.

As much as she tried to pretend she could easily go back to normal, it took her a very long time to figure out the new normal.
posted by teleri025 at 6:33 PM on January 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

re: the flight, my colleague had back surgery and then flew to India from the USA four days later. It was definitely not medically recommended but it all went ok for him.
posted by jacalata at 6:57 PM on January 12, 2013

as i was thinking about this more i remembered that just like with your friend, at first my mom was told the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes but then later they said it hadn't. i don't know what the deal was but there was some sort of confusion about that. it sounds like it is one of those things that doesn't get verified until they do further testing or go in surgically. so, your friend saying the same thing is not anything weird or suspicious.

as for your friend saying she's "cured" that is understandable from her perspective. her cancer hadn't spread and she's had her breasts removed so, unless they didn't catch it all, no she can't get breast cancer again because she no longer has breasts. i remember this being explained to me when i heard about a casual acquaintance around the same age as your friend having a double and then being "fine". because these women are younger and the risks are so high for the cancer to spread it is becoming more common for young women to go ahead and have double mastectomies as a preventative measure. it sounds rather drastic and it is, but hey no breasts means no more cancer unless it already spread.

as for her chest being cut into i don't know exactly what that is referring to, but i can tell you my mom had a hole in her side and wires sticking out of her for 2 weeks while she had radiation twice a day. yikes, that was horrible to see. a friend with lung cancer had tubes attached to her. ugh.

so, from everything you've said i really think your friend's cancer treatment is not anything to be suspicious about at all. this is your friend after all. i think you probably are just unaware how the medical treatments are so incredibly advanced in treating breast cancer today. in the past, cancer commonly meant dying a long horrible, painful death (or a really quick one), but these days many people beat cancer and breast cancer is one of the ones where women frequently come through it very successfully.

i think my concern for you is that if you start hinting or raising suspicions this could really blow up in your face. you said these are work friends so if you mention any suspicions to your mutual friends, or say anything to your friend with the cancer, and you end up being wrong boy oh boy are you going to damage your professional reputation. yes, shady people do fake these things but this is your friend and you said yourself you didn't think she would do something like that. besides, nothing in her experience is outlandish. so please, keep all these suspicions to yourself and don't breath a word of it to anyone unless you have incontrovertible proof.
posted by wildflower at 7:21 PM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Assume the truth lies somewhere in the middle, like maybe it was just a cancer scare?

I believe this is criminal fraud and prosecutable if your "friend" is lying. If your friend is lying, innocent people HAVE been hurt.

Here is what I would do....

I'd make up a fake aquaintance in your "friend's" area with a less serious but similar diagnosis. No last name, just use a first name - or better, no name! - and I would ask your "friend" for references to her medical team, since they did such a great job.

Is it possible to ask this question over face book, or do a blast email, so multiple people will see the question asked?

"Dear friend,

Someone I know of in your area was diagnosed with X. I'm so impressed and grateful for your recovery. Would it be possible to pass along your medical team's info to her? I know through my husband/roommate/neighbor/etc. that *Mary* is very interest in natuaral remedies. I'm so glad you recovered. My husband/roommate/neighbor/ etc. is very worried about *Mary*. Your references might really help.

Thank you."

I'm sneaky and dislike seeing people get taken advantage of, so this is how I would handle it.

You can't follow up with any of the references she provides about her, but you can verify these people exist.

My guess is, tho, that your friends won't provide references. Because she has none to give.

Hope this helps.

(Yes. I am telling you to follow up. It is an innocent question. Simply asking it will tell you a lot.)

Also, my FAVORITE story about a scammer getting caught, posted here before! It's a great read about friends coming together to out a scammer who was victimizing a friend, and the scifi writer Harlan Ellison plays a role in it! And it's a true story!!
posted by jbenben at 7:58 PM on January 12, 2013 [6 favorites]

I'm unclear on the process of the money changing hands -- did she solicit financial support from friends, or was this an unsolicited gesture of support from her friendship circle? And: was it considered a loan, or an outright gift?

If she is well and back on her feet, she should be in a position to work out repayment to those who supported her, right? This would seem to be the most productive angle to pursue.

Beyond that: please don't engage in any deceit to try and flush out the truth. Lying and trickery only serve to lessen you. Your personal integrity is worth more than any "gotcha!" ploy you might hatch.

In terms of you being concerned that she might be engaging in woo-based therapies: it's not your place to intervene, I don't think. Unless you are seeking to stir up more drama, that is.
posted by nacho fries at 8:12 PM on January 12, 2013

The combination of her being not a totally honest person and recovering that quickly from such a major surgery makes me highly suspicious too. I think your doubt is justified.
posted by Dansaman at 8:20 PM on January 12, 2013

> Ok, this isn't totally clear... Does she, at this point, have boobs or not? I'm not sure how common it is to do a double mastectomy + lymph nodes and breast reconstruction at the same time....

It's pretty standard to get reconstruction at the same time whenever possible. In fact, women who choose not to report that they get some pressure to change their mind.
posted by desuetude at 8:46 PM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

A woman in a chat community I was in over a decade ago pulled the whole "I've got cancer" routine and had us all jumping up and down, not so much money but time and attention, so. much. attention. and love shot her way.

I began to smell a rat -- started out with surgery dates changing and just a few other things thta didn't mesh -- and I chased it down. She fought it till the bitter end, she lied and lied and lied some more, it was ugly and nasty.

I don't think you can chase her down in your situation, esp with her in your career. And as has been pointed out upthread, a feeling isn't a fact, she's giving you reason to consider it but no way to know, really. I've been so certain of things where it's turned out that my certainty was sure way off; I now tend toward holding off, wait and see.

Give her the benefit of the doubt.

You had the money to give; clearly you didn't need it for groceries. One of my sisters never loans anyone money, she gives it if she can afford it, and if you want to give it back, that's great but no strings -- she learned this after losing a valued friendship over money loaned.

Another sister of mine, maybe my all-time favorite person, upon becoming an oncology nurse she almost immediately saw that it's one of two paths to protect your heart in that work -- either become hard and cold, see it all and let nothing in, or become so large-hearted that you (she) could stand it when she lived things most of us never will. She chose the latter.

It seems to me that you're facing a similar situation. You've got a good heart -- you were going to shave your head for this person, that is large, huge, remarkably decent -- I hope you won't let this turn you off being warm and generous toward people in need.
posted by dancestoblue at 9:47 PM on January 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

I had a "friend" who did this to a very close group of friends. None of us could bring ourselves to talk to each other about it even as it became increasingly more and more ludicrous and obviously untrue.

While I consider her a complete monster, I also realize that it's definitely mental illness. But overall, I want to stress that people can and do lie about these things even to their close friends.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 10:28 PM on January 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you are going to bother asking questions, do it in person so you can see her reaction and she does not have time to come up with an answer. And this does not have to be some secret plot or deceitful plan: if she isn't lying, people often want the opportunity to talk about this kind of stuff, and wanting to know about someone's opinion of their care and treatment is pretty normal conversation. I actively want to know if someone has a good doctor or a bad hospital experience, for myself and others. But I'm not trying to give you rationalizations to justify your behavior. At least be honest with yourself with whatever you do, be it for your own peace of mind or protecting your friends or whatever. Too many people know too much about cancer for a real lie to stay hidden, and you don't have to be the person to debunk her. People do choose to say and believe things that do not jibe with medical info for lots of reasons, and cancer treatment has come a long way, but from what you've said so far, there are definite reasons for you to come to this conclusion besides her not having had to have chemo and radiation.
Also, there is usually a big difference between people who fake illness for attention vs. money, and it sounds like the latter. If it is, what is happening with all this money? It sounds like these friends are all at enough of a distance and the awkwardness and guilt can maintain the possibility of a lie that could be dispelled with a single honest conversation about any of the genuine aspects of dealing with cancer. It's come a long way but to someone in their forties, it's not something you brush off, neither is a double mastectomy. You say she's not a private person but gives no details? Even if she was putting on a brave face, most people would be somehow affected.

Now I had an uncle who had stomach cancer and for reasons that are still unclear, he had no follow up after surgery and treatment. I'm not sure if it was differing care in another country, a mistake, or the fact that he simply did not want to deal with his mortality. He seemed to think dietary measures were all that mattered. The cancer came back and he was dead inside two years.

If you are genuinely concerned, look up support groups and she how she reacts to the idea of any interaction with other survivors. Her reaction should be telling. She could say she already has a group or be thankful for the help, opening a conversation point. She could show signs of avoidance or denial of trauma, which could be a very serious problem. Or she could try to duck and dismiss and not blow her cover, opening up another conversation point. This is about how to open up into a conversation, not whether or not you should. In interacting with cancer, it's the dominant motif. Either one is actively not talking about it, or talking about it in some way because it bleeds into most aspects of living. If she has closer support she has been leaning on, she may appreciate having someone different, less burdened, less fatigued, etc. to talk to-- but the whole not a shy, quiet, private person who happens to be avoiding all details? Sounds like a problem, be it denial or a lie. Voicing your concern about quality of care and follow up care is not necessarily an ulterior motive.
posted by provoliminal at 10:37 PM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

You have no idea of this woman's medical condition. You have no records. There is no course of action that would require you to know.

Your gut says she has not got cancer. Sounds like a good reason to donate no more and reduce contact. Should you confront her with your beliefs? Without access to her records, no. You have no facts. Instead, put space between you and her.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:14 PM on January 12, 2013 [6 favorites]

As far as the natural remedies. There are far too many cancer "woo" practioners that can lead cancer patients to think that all they need is natural remedies.
Patients can also get confused because people other than MDs can use the title "doctor". Then you do have MDs who are into this type of practice :( So in the case of your friend and in the case of provoliminal's uncle patients can be convinced that they can just go the natural remedy route and avoid the pain of follow up radiation and/or chemo. I read the blog of a cancer surgeon, he mostly debunks and tracks many of these fraudulent treatments. But, he has shared that some cancers (like Suzanne Sommers) *may* only require surgery. The follow on chemo is the reduce the chance of recurrence. If patient lucks out and doesn't get a recurrence, they erroneously assume that the additional remedies "cured" them. They sometimes (Suzanne Sommers) leave out the I had surgery portion.
posted by Librarygeek at 5:50 AM on January 13, 2013

She is someone who I considered a friend but she is also someone who I can't cut off for career reasons.

Does she have some kind of power over you, in a career sense? This might affect how you go about things. But anyway, I think that if you want to know, you can ask her more or less flat out. Not, "I suspect you are lying about having cancer." But you could come up with a short series of questions that would probably expose if she is lying. To your satisfaction, anyway. You may not get her to say, "Busted!" And you may not want to. But, if she is lying, she will probably tell obvious lies or contradict herself enough to make it absolutely clear.

Some of this also depends on what you want to do with the knowledge. If you just want to know so you won't feel so bad about doubting her, I think it's clear that there's already enough reason to doubt, and you shouldn't feel bad. If you want anything to change in your relationship-- well, good luck. People who lie about stuff like this will just keep doing it. I have an old friend who actually has had cancer a couple of time, and also lies a lot, often to get people to give him money. Seriously, he has had cancer; I've taken him to chemo and sat there while he got it. Otherwise I would think he was lying about that. But he's just a compulsive liar, to the point where it's comical. He's never going to change and I bet your friend won't either.
posted by BibiRose at 6:14 AM on January 13, 2013

[Once again, azuvmeod, Ask Metafilter isn't a chat spot. It's fine to answer questions, but the purpose here is ask a question / get answers, not have a conversation. Please keep this in mind.]
posted by taz at 7:04 AM on January 13, 2013

The mystery has deepened.

I think you ought to just let this go. It doesn't sound at all like this is someone you have a close relationship with where you would be bringing her soup when she's sick or being the person who drives her home from the hospital or being the person she talks to about pain and scars and whatever. She is a close-ish acquaintance who is good friends with your boss. So it's not someone who you really need to challenge about whether she's telling the truth about her health.

I may be reading your responses wrong but it's sounding a little bit like you're enjoying the frisson surrounding this mystery. What good would come out of you learning that in fact it's a lie? Would you then go about getting people's money returned to them, or getting your friend into therapy for whatever mental health issues would cause her to lie about cancer?

Just let it go. If she is telling the truth then good thoughts from her friends & acquaintances will help. If she is not telling the truth then good thoughts from her friends & acquaintances will help. Either way, just wish her well and let the mystery go.
posted by headnsouth at 7:47 AM on January 13, 2013 [6 favorites]

The mystery has deepened.

Wow. I too agree that you need to let this go. Just step back and walk away. With the attitude you have about this I don't think there is anything good that can come with your further involvement with this woman.
posted by OsoMeaty at 11:59 AM on January 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

She is great friend of the big boss .I fear that if I even question her I'll be in trouble.

In a situation like this, spending any more time going down the rabbit hole would be A Very Bad Idea. Back away, end contact with the problem individual, and remove yourself from this situation as much as you can. This has a lot of potential for harming your career.
posted by zombieflanders at 1:21 PM on January 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

To understand a bit more about the pattern of what cancer liars might look like, see No Evidence of Disease by Maciej Ceglowski. I hope none of that story sounds familiar.
posted by anildash at 1:26 PM on January 13, 2013

My friend had a mastectomy @12 weeks ago and is still having physical therapy and some stiffness in her arm and shoulder. Double mastectomy would likely cause serious stiffness in both arms.

If this person is lying, that's seriously screwed up, as in, mental or spiritual illness. I'm not sure what the correct response would be if the person is lying, but think about a compassionate response to someone who needs attention that bad, who is willing to take money from people who don't have it, etc. If this person works in your company, you could talk to HR. Or, you could be very kind to her, but not give her money. I'd recommend to others that "Since N has had major surgery, lets take turns making dinner for her a couple of times a week, since she must be exhausted and takeout's not covered by insurance." or some other form of kindness. She may be behaving badly, or not, but true kindness is good for you, and maybe will help her come to her senses.
posted by theora55 at 4:03 PM on January 13, 2013

It's pretty standard to get reconstruction at the same time whenever possible.

I have a friend who had a mastectomy, and her reconstruction was several weeks after her initial surgery.

She also says that she would not have been comfortable flying two weeks after her (unilateral, uncomplicated) mastectomy, and probably not until two months after it was done.

Different surgeries vary, different patients are different. But I think your caution is not baseless.
posted by KathrynT at 5:18 PM on January 13, 2013

"I'm unclear on the process of the money changing hands -- did she solicit financial support from friends, or was this an unsolicited gesture of support from her friendship circle? And: was it considered a loan, or an outright gift?"

What basically happened is she told a few of us the that the doctor did tests and told her she had cancer in both breasts, then the results of the biopsy came in and she told us that it was stage 2 and agressive and had spread to the lymph nodes. Then, she spoke of more tumors being found . Then she spoke of dying and her fear of dying. I was not too familiar with stages of cancer, or breast cancer . I googled and asked around. It seemed as if the particular facts, and her age, would lead to a long battle. It was discussed, and some of us wanted to make sure that she wouldn't have to worry about money . I offered money for her care, since she made it seem as if this was a concern. It was a nice chunk, but I'm not worried about that. My concern is that if she has taken advantage of me or the others that, this is scary and predatory behavior, that will continue. There was an element of attention getting too, and it wasn't purely for money, is my guess. She commented often on how many nice emails she was getting and how many were now being so nice to her. Of course, it all can be innocent, but then when she was "cured" I guess it didn't seem medically possible from the standpoint of my own research.
I don't want to again get too chatty but I don't relate to the comments that say that I have a bad attitude and should ignore this. I realize there is not much I can do. Still, it seems natural to want to know the truth in this case. It appears that there is no sure answer. The link to the Stephanie Borque story was mindblowing.
posted by azuvmeod at 6:10 PM on January 13, 2013

My concern is that if she has taken advantage of me or the others that, this is scary and predatory behavior, that will continue.

And? How will you knowing the truth affect that? If you had proof this person was lying (which you will not find in this thread), are you going to ensure that people get their money back? Or that future people don't get conned?
posted by headnsouth at 6:33 PM on January 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with OP in as much as the reason people get away with some really awful shit is that there are silly societal rules that make it not acceptable to speak of untoward things in polite company. In fact, I think this is a grey area where the person affected has to use their best judgements once some more fact are in.

A few years ago, a friend who became a client conned me. I was so flummoxed, I didn't know what to do! This person was my "friend" after all!

While I didn't cause a kerfuffle, I did rescind my positive reference for this person to fellow business owners I had previously referred her to in good faith.

In this particular situation, the OP has two choices. She can go super sleuth and completely out the person (not recommended!) OR she can ask a few polite questions to get a better read on the scenario for her own edification. If I were suspecting something like this, I would want to know if I was wrong, or if there was a strong possibility I was wrong.

If the OP finds out she is correct and the person is lying, I believe that is an entirely different AskMe question, with the full details regarding the relationships, politics, and monies exchanged included, so that the hive can pass judgement.

Someone above wrote about how this happened in a group of friends they had, and how no one checked in when they started feeling suspicions because they all felt guilty for even thinking it. People who lie count on this factor. This seems reason enough to ask a few extra polite questions before the OP decides how she feels, and how she wants to handle things.
posted by jbenben at 8:03 PM on January 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

headnsouth, if I had concrete proof, I feel it would be morally imperative to out this person. Not only has she lied(and I despise liars) but she has taken money from those who couldn't afford it. In the past, she has told a story of how she was stalked . The story never added up but I assumed it to be true. The alleged stalker was jailed, and he has maintained till this day that my friend invented the whole thing. He was acquitted at trial but the damage was done. I'm mentallly revisiting that whole fiasco now. There are white lies and there are lies than cause serious damage.
posted by azuvmeod at 5:44 AM on January 14, 2013

If I read this right-- I'm still confused-- this is someone above the food chain from you at work. Nothing good is going to come from confrontation, or even from her knowing that you know. This woman is on some kind of collision course and you don't want to be the one she collides with. It sucks that you are in this position, but just give her a wide berth. In your place, I'd even be looking for another job.

Honestly, this sounds so weird. This person falsely accused someone of a crime and it went to trial? And now she has a made-up illness, and no one-- including your boss-- has any idea? At the very least you are in an incredibly toxic workplace.

The money, at this point, is the least of your problems. In the scenario you describe, it was offered to her; she likely felt she had to take it to perpetuate her story.
posted by BibiRose at 6:46 AM on January 14, 2013

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