The Lying Disease: Why do some people fake cancer online?

In The Stranger, an excellent feature by Cienna Madrid on people who fake cancer and other serious illnesses online, for the purpose of receiving sympathy and attention from strangers. Munchausen syndrome isn't new, but the internet sure amplifies its effects. Read: "The Lying Disease." (thanks, Jon D. Dean)


  1. People who have cancer and people who merely pretend to have cancer do at least have one thing in common: both need professional help.

    However the specific kind of help they need is very different.

  2. The Hardcore Munchausen types lie off-line too: some to the extent of getting completely unnecessary surgery.  I personally know of at least one case of this.  As always, the internet just encourages dilettantes to make cheap shots. 

  3. My former neighbor was a pathological liar, and told everyone she had cancer. She MAY have had cancer — but she also claimed to have had a different more fatal cancer in addition to the first type of cancer she claimed. It was before my time, but other neighbor’s accounts of her illness and behavior just did not match up with the cancer outcomes that I had witnessed in friends and relatives. 

    Plus this woman lied about everything — like she would take a trivial detail of her assumptions/ observations and riff on that. What she said seemed to take a crumb of truth then spin an out of control yarn, with details that did not match up.

    The last time I checked pathological liars were not in the DSM – but I do not understand why not. Pathological liars seem to be inherently exploitative – they attempt to build bridges with their audiences with untrue associations to build confidences by which they can then mine more information to exploit their friendship/relationship.

    The cancer fakers seem to build a web of tragic drama that attracts plenty of sympathetic attention, and donations, sometimes, if they are mining that angle. On the cusp of Narcissistic Personality Disorder with a sprinkling of psychopathy ?

    1. I think that many pathological liars are covered under broader diagnoses such as antisocial personality disorder, which may be why the specific diagnosis of “pathological liar” (which is also a little too pejorative in tone to be used as a name for a diagnosis) is not in the manual. It seems that the behavior is associated with many syndromes in different ways, so singling the one sign out as a disorder in itself may not be helpful.

      1. Hmmm, I am unsure about this partnership of disorders.

        The pathological liars I have known have tended to have long term relationships, stable housing and careers, and from their surface exterior, function as normal adults. The effects of their lies can be destructive or utterly minor, and seem to be be amusing or psychologically satisfying to the liar — as though they are leading or dominating the people who believe the lies. 

        Sociopaths and psychopaths deceive to make an easier course for their actions — but the pathological liars I have encountered will often lie about really trivial matters, like where an object came from, as opposed to lying to gain entry into a home to rob or murder someone. I have also noticed that liars like this will pluck details from the person or context around them — almost like plucking lint off of clothes — to steal the details, names, etc. for their tale. In the article it refers to one of the cancer deceivers appropriating the stomach tumor story, and one using the name and identity of one of her instructors as the as a false character in her history.

        It is also interesting that all the cancer fakers in this story (and other media) are female, whereas antisocial PD occurs in 1% of females and 3% of males. Sub classification/new classification ?

        1. ASPD was just an example I was throwing out there – it’s associated with other syndromes, too, such as borderline personality disorder. The behavior described in the article falls under another category, “facticious disorders”, which is also already included in the DSM. 

          What I mean is that making pathological lying a specific diagnosis might be similar to making “vomiting” a diagnosis – vomiting is a clinical sign, not a disease, and it can be associated with all sorts of things. Similarly, many people lie pathologically for many different reasons.

          However, my training is in veterinary medicine, not human psychology, and so I’m not intimately familiar with the DSM editing process. My opinions here are only informed by my training in clinical practice.

          1. I’m not a psychologist/psychiatrist either, or medical professional.

            The same way that hoarding can be a symptom, I think that capital H Hoarding can also be recognized as a separate pathology of its own on the OCD spectrum. I also ponder, for example, if there is a sociological perspective to certain disorders (ie pathological Hoarding in first world countries where there is an abundance of goods).

            What I am saying is that lying is a symptom, but that it is also a bigger and separate entity when it fits the specific diagnostic criteria.

            The specific profiles of the cancer fakers is curious, how the fakery becomes their social identity with so much intense emotional interaction. But then there was that fake lesbian fake Syrian blogger, and the fake woman (= male nurse) hanging out in suicide forums that actively encouraged several actual suicides. The internet is the wild west of fakery, I guess that we all know that now…

            Hard, because there ARE lots of people with cancer, who do want/need support, to share their experiences, etc.

          2. I think that few people would disagree with you that some disorders may be associated with specific cultures. There have been some fascinating articles recently about culture-specific mental illnesses – I’m reminded specifically of koro in certain Asian cultures. It’s very interesting to think about.

            I also agree that it’s a shame that these diseases are intersecting like this and harming both people who are physically ill and those who are mentally ill. For those with cancer, it poisons what could be a very empowering community with suspicion and doubt, and for those with Münchausen syndrome, it provides an environment where the disease can grow and fester, harming others (and the person with Münchausen) in the process. Sad, but at the same time deeply interesting from the perspective of epidemiology and emerging disease.

  4. People who lie about anything on line are a strange breed.  We hear a story every year…  probably every month, with a little effort.  I’ve often wondered what the appeal is of lying about who you are, to people you will never meet and who are not giving you money.  My best guess is that people love storytelling.

    1. I remember when I first got e-mail, which was in 1995. For a long time, felt like I was being deluged with stories, usually prefaced by at least a dozen repeats of “FWD”, that I was pretty sure weren’t true. You probably know the ones I mean: Bill Gates would send me $5000 for forwarding a message, the post office was going to charge three cents for every email, don’t open any email with the subject line “Good Times”.

      I still wonder who came up with these, and why, although at least as fascinating to me are the people who unquestioningly accepted them as true.

  5. I post on a message board where at least two members have been known to have faked their deaths over the years.

    One, in particular, wove a web of total crap: he claimed to be a 20-something hardbody but turned out to be a 50-something schlub. When approached to meet up by friends, he inexplicably “died.” (So goes the tale, it was before I joined.)

    He came back under a new nic and was outed by a mod. Naturally, there were fireworks. He spoke about how he was on at least 4 different types of meds, 2 of which anti-psychotics but I don’t think anyone believed him. 

    Sadly, this has jaded me to internet bullshittery. If someone dies I usually think to myself, “Obituary or you’re lying.”

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