Another Cancer Hoaxer Preys on Goodwill

February 1, 2010

It doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens a lot more than most people realize: Someone’s tragic story of battling a horrible disease turns out to be made up—either for profit or simply attention. According to an ABC story :

Dina Leone, an uninsured mother of two from Baltimore, reached out to old friends through Facebook telling them she had stage-four stomach cancer and asking for help. In daily Internet posts and text messages starting in 2008, Leone, 37, they said, described the pain of treatments and the struggle to pay for chemotherapy, often asking old high school classmates to help pay for doctors' visits or to help in fulfilling dying wishes, like visiting Disneyland. Friends say they spent countless hours on the phone and visiting Leone in person for more than a year, lending a thoughtful ear and shoulder to cry on. Some apparently sent her thousands of dollars to help pay for her treatment. One even said she flew her to California for a final trip to the theme park.

But it was all a lie. Her heartbreaking story unraveled, and Leone was indicted on theft and conspiracy charges.

And it’s only one of many similar hoaxes in recent years.

In 2009, a pregnant young woman spent months blogging about her compelling personal journey of anguish. Her unborn child (named April, after the month she was due), had a rare and fatal birth defect. Tiny April's brain would not form properly, and doctors said she would likely die before birth or shortly thereafter. Still, the plucky and courageous "April's Mom" was determined to bring the child in accord with her beliefs.

At first the blog drew only a trickle of readers, but soon the word spread and tens of thousands of people visited the site to read her latest blog, detailing doctor's visits and her friends' wonderful support. Mothers of sick and dying children sent prayers and gifts, offering encouragement and sympathy.

Last June, when April was finally born (several weeks late), she tragically died within hours. What few suspected was that it was all a lie; April did not exist. She was the fictional creation of her "mother," Becca Bueshausen. Every detail of April's life and death had been made up; all the tears that had been shed, all the prayers that had been sent, were for a tiny child that never existed. When the lie was exposed, the blog's readers reacted with outrage, feeling betrayed and suckered. Bueshausen offered a tepid apology on her blog.

One main theme in such hoaxes is that they deal with diseases. This ruse is especially effective because it's an issue that most people can relate to; almost everyone has either had a serious disease or knows a friend or family member who has. Hoaxers like Beushausen exploit their readers' uncertainty and fear about their health to add credibility to their stories.

Most such hoaxes are done for attention, money, and sympathy. In some cases, however, there's a political angle as well. In this case, Beushausen was promoting her Christian beliefs and anti-abortion agenda. She described at length and in detail the hard choices she struggled with, and anti-abortion readers praised her for standing by her strong Christian values.