There’s a big cancer-related fraud that’s making headlines in Australia right now, with a woman called Belle Gibson who blogged about curing cancer via eating well (have a look here if you don’t know what I’m talking about), and it’s created quite a lot of controversy. All the media outlets which helped her pedal her complex web of lies and deceit, by accepting her wildly outrageous claims without any effort whatsoever to check even the most basic of facts, are now whipping up a frenzy of ‘how dare she’ headlines. Meanwhile, the Australian Women’s Weekly magazine is publishing an interview with this woman, where she very clearly demonstrates that she has not one iota of insight into her own behaviour or its impact on vulnerable people. Again, she is being enabled by the media to trot out tales of her twisted reality, supported by retouched images of her which one can only assume are to make us wonder how such a young and attractive woman could behave in such a wicked way.
The media has built Belle Gibson, and now they are knocking her down. The lies and deceit are all her own, but thus far it appears that not once did any of the media outlets who were telling (and selling) her story, was she questioned about the validity of her claims. Much of what she said was farcical or facile or both, yet her fame grew, her followers amassed, and her power grew. It’s the power she was given, by every journalist who gushingly accepted the information provided to them by her PR company, and editor who overlooked the outrageousness of the claims, that has enabled sick, vulnerable and misguided people to be hurt.
Cancer, in reality, is not attractive. Tumours are ugly, whether seen or unseen. They can cause your breasts to be cut off, you anus to be sewn up, or half the skin on your face to be replaced by a flap of tissue from your belly. They make your organs stop working, which makes you thin, or fat, or sallow or grey. The treatment – and by this I mean surgery and chemotherapy and radiation and stem cell transplants and hormonal therapy – is uglier still. It poisons your cells, makes your hair fall out, gives your diarrhoea or maybe makes you vomit diarrhea out your mouth, causes unmitigating bone and nerve pain, headaches, sensitivity to cold, sensitivity to heat, burns you, makes you barren, brings you to your knees and then takes them out from under you.
All this ugliness is not really what the media wants to hear about. That it’s the truth of cancer and how cancer is best treated, is irrelevant. That cancer makes you look sick, and that the treatment makes you look even sicker before it can begin to make you look better, is not going to make the front cover of a glossy magazine. Tubby, one-breasted 45-year-old women with burn scars and post-menopausal slack skin don’t become media darlings, with thousands of followers hanging off every word – I find it best to eat my porridge at 10am, because that’s when the reflux meds kick in and I can risk eating without revisiting my breakfast for the remainder of the day – is not the sort of morning mantra that’s going to cut it with the Instagram devotees, when much of society seems obsessed with beauty and youth and demands, absolutely demands, simple answers to really fucking complicated questions. As abhorrent as Belle Gibson’s behaviour has been, rather than questioning why she did what she did, I think we need to question how she was able to get away with it in the first place.