“Illness doesn’t need to be like that”

After writing my previous post, the good folks behind Gert Loveday asked if I had heard about another Australian health blogger, Belle Gibson. Yes, I had… Gibson was famous for having terminal brain cancer (not true) and running a wellness site (true). Her app, The Whole Pantry, was included on the Apple Watch, and it seems like Gibson was just about to hit the big time when it turned out that the money from her charity fundraisers was going to the charity of Belle Gibson. Then it turned out that Gibson didn’t really have cancer, just an appointment with “Dr Phil.” (He didn’t have a last name. No, it wasn’t that Dr. Phil.)

Understandably, the shit has hit the fan. Gibson has failed to make her promised explanation, the app has been pulled from the Apple store, and Gibson’s book has been pulled from sale in Australia and a planned American release cancelled. It’s sweet justice for those who’ve been used by Gibson–but why were people conned in the first place?

Several parts of Belle Gibson’s cancer story just don’t make sense and never did. Gibson was diagnosed with “terminal, malignant” brain cancer (she never named the type of cancer, which should have been a huge red flag from the start). Cruel as it seems, Gibson’s continued existence gives the lie to her story. Malignant brain tumors have extremely low survival rates. Gibson claimed that she was diagnosed in 2010, so she would be very lucky to survive to this point, whatever her treatment. In addition, cancers that originate in the brain are unlikely to spread. Yet in June 2014, Gibson declared that her brain cancer had spread to multiple organs. This just doesn’t happen with primary brain cancer, and if somehow it does, the victims are unlikely to travel round the world afterwards–which is just what Gibson did.

A quick Google check (and some talk with, you know, actual cancer patients) would have brought up tons of questions. Yet nobody checked, nobody bothered to dispel Gibson’s claims until after Jess Ainscough’s death. Why didn’t anybody do so? Partly because society considers it extremely rude to question the diagnosis of a sick person (especially when that person’s illness can be leveraged to raise funds for research). Partly because journalists must have a desperate need for copy to fill up the chasm of the Internet.

But part of the reason has to be a communal desire to believe that what Belle Gibson was promoting was true, no matter how physically impossible it might seem.

What exactly was Gibson promoting? A lot of her advice was pretty basic fitness and wellness stuff, with a dash of organic woo–move around, meditate, drink smoothies, try “superfoods” and don’t wear antiperspirant, etc. Not terrible advice, but not unique and certainly not cancer-curing.

But I’m not sure if Gibson ever quite claimed that she had fully cured her cancer. Instead, Gibson claimed that her regimen was keeping the cancer from destroying her lifestyle. She could “live” with cancer in an attractive and marketable way, just like Jess Ainscough.

Of course, Ainscough actually had cancer and died, hiding her no-longer perfect body. Gibson was the perfect cancer patient, precisely because she didn’t have cancer. Gibson was positive and physically beautiful even under supposedly terrifying circumstances. In Gibson’s own words, “Illness of any kind is exhausting and debilitating, but there was a part of me that knew it didn’t need to be like that.” Had Gibson really had cancer, she would have had to undergo exhausting and debilitating treatment. She would have lost her hair, grown tired and pale, vomited, fainted, all the unhappy side effects of “getting well.” (Ainscough faced the same dilemma, only with a real choice involved. She chose to preserve her body “whole,” even if that body contained the cancer that would eventually destroy the whole.) Gibson sold the fantasy that it was possible to avoid entering what Susan Sontag called “the kingdom of the sick.” Just exercise, eat your veggies, and think happy thoughts and you’ll never feel sad or, more importantly, make people want to avert their eyes.

This emphasis on avoiding ugliness reminds me of this Atlantic article on Angelina Jolie. The author praises Jolie for being open about her recent ovarian surgery and for embracing an organic model of health and beauty–a better model, which involves green shakes instead of orange skin. I understand that this is probably true, but there’s a catch–the idea of natural beauty still privileges beauty over health. It’s still important that a woman embrace the ideal of beauty–certain ways are better to get there than others, but health still involves an attractive appearance, even during serious illness.

This is the idea that allows women like Gibson to flourish–the idea that “unnatural” treatment is bad, even if it saves your life, because a woman’s body should be a natural temple of health. A woman should be able to heal herself if she’s just positive enough and lives on spirulina and mushrooms. And even if she isn’t, it’s better than living bald, or without an arm, or pale-skinned or frightening in any way. A woman is literally better off dead than ugly.

We want to believe Belle Gibson, because we don’t want to be frightening crones. Just as people long ago wanted to believe that women could live on air or give birth to rabbits, we want to believe that women can be riddled with deadly tumors and still be beautiful and fresh as daisies. We can still be beautiful and feminine despite the obstacles our own bodies throw in our way. We can be deathly ill and still full of life.

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