Why Do People Fake Having Cancer?

Photo: Facebook/ Kristen Schellhaas
Photo: Facebook/ Kristen Schellhaas

A student at Northern Kentucky University is facing legal trouble after she was accused of lying to her sorority sisters and parents about having stage III stomach cancer.

Kelly Schmahl, 20, received thousands of dollars that was raised in her name when she pretended to be ill between June 2016 and March 2017, Fox 19 reports. Authorities are currently investigating where that money went.

Police say that Schmahl used her cellphone as a forwarding service to receive and answer phone calls and text messages while pretending that a physician was on the other end. She also shaved her head and used a wheelchair.

Schmahl’s sorority, Delta Zeta, hosted several fundraisers, including Kelly’s Klassic, which was put together to help raise money for her medical bills. “I have never been one to ask for much, especially when it comes to money and material things, but when I was diagnosed last September, financial support from those around me has become pivotal in my battle,” she wrote to promote the event.

Police say Schmahl received at least $7,500 to help with her illness.

If Schmahl did, in fact, fake her cancer diagnosis, she wouldn’t be the first to do it and get caught. In 2015, Australian wellness expert and blogger Belle Gibson admitted that her claims that she healed her terminal brain cancer by eating whole foods and using alternative therapies were false. “None of it’s true,” she told Australian Women’s Weekly. “I don’t want forgiveness. I just think [speaking out] was the responsible thing to do. Above anything, I would like people to say, ‘OK, she’s human.'” Gibson’s book, The Whole Pantry, was a bestseller.

An Olive Garden employee in Mississippi also made headlines in 2016 after he was accused of lying about having cancer to get bigger tips, and in 2012, a bride in New York was charged with faking cancer in order to get her dream wedding and honeymoon.

But why would anyone lie about having a serious illness like cancer?

There are a few reasons, Simon Rego, PsyD, chief psychologist at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, tells Yahoo Beauty. Some people may do it for what’s known as “secondary gain,” i.e., getting certain advantages as a result of an alleged illness. People with this motive may fake an illness to get out of responsibilities, like work or school, to have people take on responsibilities for them, or to get money.

Others may have a psychological disorder known as factitious disorder, he says, noting that these people may lie about being ill simply to fall into the role of being “sick.” “It cannot, by definition, include incentives for the behavior,” he says.

Munchausen syndrome, a condition in which someone fakes an illness or causes self-injury to get attention, is a factitious disorder. While Munchausen syndrome happens, psychologist Paul Coleman, PsyD, tells Yahoo Beauty that it’s tough to track because people lie and seek out the care of multiple doctors.

Licensed clinical psychologist Alicia H. Clark, PsyD, tells Yahoo Beauty that this might happen more often than you’d think. “The clinical term for lying about an illness — physical or mental — for personal gain is referred to as malingering,” she says. “Malingering is far more common than factitious disorder, with estimates being as high as 45 to 60 percent in disability cases.”

Psychiatrist Gail Saltz, MD, author of The Power of Different, agrees.Malingering is fooling others to manipulate them for your own personal gain,” she tells Yahoo Beauty. “It may include lying, faking, or harming others and is more consistent with having antisocial personality disorder or sociopathy.”

Immaturity can also come into play, clinical psychologist John Mayer, PhD, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, who has treated people who have lied about an illness, tells Yahoo Beauty. “We all ‘role-play’ or lead fantasy lives as a normal developmental exercise in learning and practicing being an human being and eventually an adult,” he says. “If some of us get rewarded or reinforced for this role-play, it may continue to be a part of our arsenal of behaviors that we use socially.”

The behavior could also be caused by sociopathy, a condition in which people use social behavior for their own gain without regard to the social rules and norms. “They are manipulators, thieves, liars, and con artists,” Mayer says. “These sociopaths often make up believable, outrageous stories to get something for themselves.”

It’s also possible that people who fake an illness can do so for several reasons — for example, monetary gain and a need for attention, Rego says. “There are very different rationales behind this,” he says.

A proper diagnosis can only be given once a person’s motives are understood, Clark says. “Knowing the root cause of a person’s lying, whether they know they are lying, what is to be gained, and assessing a variety of other symptoms and factors is the only way to properly diagnose her condition,” she says. “The hardest part of this for her friends and family is facing the reality of her deception and the pain she has caused those around her.”

Schmahl is currently facing charges of grand theft or theft by deception. If convicted, she could spend up to 10 years in prison.

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