Woman Who Faked Cancer and Cure Is Fined $320,000 Over Hoax

Roxanne Nelson, BSN, RN

September 29, 2017

An Australian woman who falsely claimed not only to have had cancer but to have cured it using natural remedies and nutrition has now been fined $322,000 ($420,000 Australian) for misleading the public.

Belle Gibson, a 25-year-old entrepreneur who created a small health and wellness empire after claiming that she had had brain cancer and had cured it herself with the use of natural remedies, fabricated the entire scenario, according to an investigation conducted in 2015 by the Australian newspaper.

As previously reported byMedscape Medical News, an investigation conducted in 2015 by the Australian revealed multiple public contradictions since 2009 about nearly everything - including Gibson's supposed age, illnesses, treatments, and miraculous recoveries.

In addition, she held fundraisers for charities, but the promised money was never donated.

Last year, Consumer Affairs Victoria launched legal action against her for false and misleading conduct in relation to her health and for unlawful fundraising appeals in 2013 and 2014. She was subsequently ordered to pay $30,000 toward the legal costs of Consumer Affairs Victoria.

Earlier this year, Gibson was found guilty of breaching sections of the Australian consumer law that states "a person must not engage in trade or commerce likely to mislead or deceive."

She has now been issued a hefty fine by Debra Mortimer, a federal court justice.

Gibson had initially been facing $1.1 million in fines, but the court ordered that she instead pay $420,000 (Australian) because they did not see the point in issuing such a large fine, since she did not have the ability to pay it. As she had done during her trial, Gibson stayed away from court.

A Long, Strange Trip

Little is known about her life prior to 2009, or how much of it is factual. As reported in news.com.au, Gibson described her childhood and adolescence as being filled with extreme distress. She claims to have taken responsibility for an autistic younger brother and a mother with multiple sclerosis by 6 years of age and that she had suffered from severe obesity by age 11. By the time she was 12 years old, she moved out of her home and moved in with a classmate and then with a family friend. She says she never knew her father and became estranged from her mother.

Gibson claims that when she was 20 years old, her current health problems began, and she blames it on a reaction to a vaccine against human papillomavirus. She claims that she experienced vision, memory, and walking problems and that she subsequently suffered a stroke. Not long afterward, she claims she was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor and that she was given 4 months to live.

After receiving chemotherapy and radiotherapy for 2 months, she passed out on the lawn of a Melbourne hospital. When she awakened, . Gibson says that she "had an epiphany." The epiphany was that if she only had a few weeks left to live, this was not the way she wanted to live them. And although her physicians thought "she was mad" to refuse further treatment, she embarked on a healing program of natural remedies.

Contrary to predictions by her physicians, Gibson did not die.

In 2010, she gave birth to a healthy son, even though she had been told she could never have children. Two years later, she underwent a miscarriage at 5 months' pregnancy.

In addition to her brain cancer, she claimed that a German magnetic therapist had diagnosed her with several other malignancies, including cancers of the blood, spleen, uterus, and liver.

Gibson then turned into something of a guru for natural healing. She developed a product called the Whole Pantry, which consisted of a website, a mobile phone app, and a recipe book.

Her $35 cookbook was published by Penguin Books in Australia and had been scheduled to be distributed in the United Kingdom and United States before it was cancelled by the publisher following reports that Gibson's illness was all a hoax.

Gibson's $3.79 app had been downloaded at least 300,000 times and was voted Apple's Best Food and Drink App of 2013. The app was at one time supposed to be part of the recently launched Apple Watch.

She also reportedly ran two fundraising campaigns for various charities, but the bulk of money was never distributed. When questions arose concerning her fundraising activities in 2015, Gibson promised that she would make donations to the organizations which had never been paid after a fundraiser in 2013. She blamed "cash flow" problems for the delay.

Gibson also publicly claimed that she donated 25% of her company's profits to various causes and reported that $300,000 had already been given to charity. But she soon backtracked on that, claiming that the contributions were in fact never made, because sales of her app were not as robust as she had anticipated. Gibson has been unable to provide a list of any charities that she made donations to, nor has she disclosed how much money the charities have been given.

Guilty as Charged

In 2015, Gibson confessed that "none of it was true."

She earned a total of $322,00 during the course of her "career"; the court has found that just over $10,000 was made in donations, which was far less than what she claimed.

Gibson never showed up in court during her trial. She was found guilty in March of "most but not all" of the allegations that were levied against her by Consumer Affairs Victoria.

The fine that has now been issued to Gibson was for a variety of infractions, including failing to donate money from the proceeds of her wellness app and failing to fulfill a promise to pay $150,000 to a young boy named Joshua Schwartz who had an inoperable brain tumor.

"Ms Gibson expressly compared the terrible circumstances of young Joshua to her own, asserting she had the same kind of tumor as he did; a statement which was completely false," Judge Mortimer stated in her ruling.

The infractions and amounts are as follows:

  • $90,000 for failing to donate proceeds from the sale of The Whole Pantry app, as she had stated she would do

  • $50,000 for failing to donate proceeds from the launch of The Whole Pantry app

  • $30,000 for failing to donate proceeds from an event held in 2014 honoring Mothers Day

  • $90,000 for failing to donate other company profits

  • $150,000 for failing to donate 100% of 1 week's app sales to the family of Joshua Schwarz

Physicians ― Get on the Ball

The case of Bell Gibson was highlighted in a Medscape commentary entitled "Are Evil People Influencing Your patients?," by Art Caplan, PhD, from the Division of Medical Ethics, New York University Langone Medical Center, New York City. He said this case is an example of social media being used to disseminate health information by people who lack ethics and/or knowledge.

"Physicians need to know where to send patients for reliable information. Know the websites, find out about social media so that you can say, 'Here is a vetted source from the American Cancer Society or the American Medical Association (or other expert professional groups) to help you deal with diseases,' " said Dr Caplan. "Do not leave your patients hanging, relying on whatever it is that pops up in the top 10 Google searches."

The Internet is a powerful tool, he emphasized. "We are not going to censor it. We are not going to shut it down," said Dr Caplan. "But I believe that medicine has to adapt to and address it. The case of Belle Gibson shows that if we do not do that, a lot of harm may come of it."

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