Munchausen syndrome and a cancer hoax

Personal Narrative | 6 comments

I am convinced that my sister Bernadette is pretending to have terminal cancer. I am angry, upset, and terrified right now.

This all started in January, when Bernadette called to tell me that a small tumor had been found on her ovary during a routine scan. She informed me that the tumor was treatable with radiation, and that this type of cancer had a high survival rate. However, after a few weeks of “treatment,” Bernadette called again to say that the disease had spread to her bladder. She was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer thirteen days later.

Bernadette did not want me at any of her medical appointments. The support she desired was online. She used social media to spread the word about her diagnosis, her struggle with chemotherapy, and her feelings about cancer. Her posts became more dramatic over time, and soon she was warning her readers to “live life to the fullest”, “not wait until tomorrow”, etc.

I felt so bad for Bernadette, and I knew that she could not possibly afford all the prescriptions she would need on a daily basis. She did not have health insurance, but instead was covered by charity care. To help raise funds, I began selling t-shirts with the words “Proud Member of Bernadette’s Team – Never Give Up” written on the back.

“Team Bernadette” spread like wildfire online. Bernadette, delighted, created a group with the same name. On this group she shared some truly shocking stories about her cancer. She claimed to be on aggressive chemotherapy and radiation. On several occasions, the doctor had needed to scrape tumors from her urethra so that she would be able to pass urine. Bernadette described in great detail her bladder “backing up” so bad she vomited urine. She had an online sign-up sheet for people to bring her family their dinners. Apparently, she was too weak to cook.

Not having a medical background, I accepted everything that Bernadette told me as fact. Never in my wildest dreams did I think she could lie to us about something so important! I did notice some inconsistencies in what she was telling us, though. It was hard to accept that Bernadette was so sick when she looked so well. When she supposedly went into liver failure, there was no jaundice. I also thought it was strange that Bernadette did not want anyone to go to appointments with her, and looking back, I really wish that I had insisted on going.

Bernadette announced in November that she was giving up, and felt ready to accept hospice care. She had a date set for the hospice nurses to come to her home. This news spread quickly. Bernadette wrote her “last note” on social media, reassuring her followers that this was not “goodbye,” but “see you later.”

Ironically, right after Bernadette had released her “last note,” she took to writing a memoir. She wanted to share her experiences of cancer and how they had changed her. A well-meaning stranger helped Bernadette to create an e-book that she sold online.

On the morning of Bernadette’s hospice assessment, I was so distraught. I texted Bernadette to tell her how much I loved her and how important it was that she accept hospice care. I did not want her to feel any more pain, or to be scared. Bernadette’s reply to me was strange. She demanded to know why I had not “liked” a comment she had made on social media to her sister-in-law. In the comment, Bernadette accused her of not caring because she had not visited from Ohio. Why was Bernadette worrying about this now?

Bernadette called us with some surprising news later that day. Her pain had gone! Previously, she had told us all about her nearly constant excruciating pain, with one kidney shut down and cancer spreading to sixteen organs, as well as her spine. Bernadette said she felt she was finally getting her miracle. I realized then that Bernadette was lying to us. The real “miracle” was how long it took her own sister to work this out.

I am not sure what my next step should be. Thankfully, my husband and father are both on my side. In fact, they had their doubts about the “cancer” for months. But Bernadette has an eleven-year-old daughter, and a six-year-old son. They believe that their mother is going to die. My children believe that they are losing their aunt.

Submitted Online |

6 Comments

  1. pemf8000 Pro

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    Reply
  2. Barb

    My daughter is doing the same thing. She has munchausen and narcissistic personality disorder. Right now she is in hospice care. My question is how does this end up. Can they get better from hospice? I just wonder how this is going to play out.

    Reply
    • Dr. F

      There is often either the claim of a sudden cure from prayer, or cure for some other intangible reason. The other possibility is the growing realization by caregivers and others that the patient is not terminal, which can lead to a strong emotional response by the patient.

      Reply
  3. Mel jones

    I was raised by a mother who lied to me, and my sisters, about having terminal cancer.I grew up believing she would drop dead at any moment. She would remind us regularly that she was dying, and show us where her will was. I’m searching for support groups, or information about anybody else living with the aftermath of a similar thing. My mother is alive and well today, at the age of 84.

    Reply
  4. tom

    My daughter in law is telling the same cancer story with a different cancer. She has 2 small children. We know she was never admitted to the hospitals where she supposedly had surgery. Her husband, our son has no clue and because of covid he can not go in on any appointments. We don’t know how to approach our son that she is a fake. He loves her and their children. We have tried to question some things, but he isn’t picking up on hints. How can we approach our son without causing a falling out?

    Reply
    • Marc D Feldman

      Tom, I just noticed your Comment. Approaching the patient is one of the most challenging aspects of this whole phenomenon. In my latest book (Dying to be Ill), I discuss the three major ways one can try to break through the denial, and you might want to take a look. But the fact that your son is enmeshed or in denial himself means that your DIL is being reinforced in her actions, and so the situation may not be correctable at the moment. There may be another time that would be better, though of course I can’t predict the future. If there are any signs of Munchausen by proxy abuse (which is at a somewhat higher risk in cases of Munchausen syndrome), you must be more assertive and notify child protective services. You needn’t have proof of MBP to make a report, and might be able to do so anonymously. Good luck.

      Reply

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