A popular Australian wellness blogger who rose to fame after claiming she overcome several different types of cancer with a healthy lifestyle alone is now acknowledging that her career is built on a false premise, and she never had cancer in the first place.
Belle Gibson’s holistic living brand centers on her dramatic story about how she tackled her personal medical history. Gibson claimed that, after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 2009 and given just a few weeks to live, she withdrew from chemotherapy and beat the cancer with the help of “healing foods.” She told reporters that she believed her health issues — which she said also included subsequent diagnoses for cancers of the liver, uterus, spleen, and blood — stemmed from a bad reaction she had to Gardasil, the vaccine that protects against cervical cancer.
Gibson amassed somewhat of a social media empire. Over the past several years, she has gained hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram, designed a popular recipe app that was selected to be one of the first few apps featured on the Apple Watch, and landed several book deals. The December 2014 issue of ELLE Australia dubbed Gibson “The Most Inspiring Woman You’ve Met This Year.” Her cookbook, Whole Pantry, was set to be released in the U.S. and U.K. this month.
But when an Australian newspaper started calling Gibson’s medical history into question, her story quickly unraveled. First, she claimed she had been misdiagnosed with liver, uterus, spleen, and blood cancers, but maintained that she definitely had terminal brain cancer at one point. Then, she suggested her brain cancer diagnosis was perhaps a medical error. Eventually, she admitted that none of it was true, and said her “troubled childhood” may have led her to lie about her condition.
The publishing company that sold Whole Pantry, Penguin Books, has acknowledged that it didn’t fully fact check Gibson’s medical history and has moved to pull her cookbook from the shelves. Apple has also removed her app from the Apple Watch showcase.
Controversy has swirled around Gibson’s unconventional ideas about cancer for quite some time. Before her admission this week, however, she maintained that her critics were being unfair to her. “It is unfortunate someone [is] trying to discredit the natural healing path I am on,” she posted on Facebook in 2013. “I have been healing a severe and malignant brain cancer for the past few years with natural medicine, Gerson therapy and foods. It is working for me.”
Gibson has also previously said that she feels a connection with Apple founder Steve Jobs, who delayed conventional cancer treatment while he pursued unproven alternative remedies — including a vegan diet, acupuncture, and herbal remedies — before eventually having surgery. Jobs succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 2011.
The unfolding drama over Gibson’s deception comes amid a larger conversation about where to draw the line between “traditional” medicine and alternative treatments, and who deserves a platform to spread health information — especially if that information runs counter to what scientists and doctors advocate.
On the same day as Gibson’s confessional interview with Australian Women’s Weekly will hit newsstands, popular celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, whose TV show draws millions of viewers each day, will air a special episode of his show to respond to his critics. Dr. Oz has recently come under considerable fire from doctors, academics, and members of Congress for promoting ineffective natural health remedies that aren’t grounded in scientific evidence. He maintains, however, that medical professionals need the space to explore alternative treatments that may effectively complement Western medicine.
“I believe unconventional approaches appear to work in some people’s lives,” Oz writes in an op-ed published on TIME on Thursday. “They are often based on long-standing traditions from different cultures that visualize the healing process in very different ways from our Western traditions. They are aimed at chronic conditions like lack of energy, fogginess, or moodiness — which are frequently overlooked or under-treated by conventional practitioners.”
It’s a framework that appeals to a growing number of people. Alternative medicine, a category that includes nutritional supplements often touted as “natural systems of healing,” are increasingly popular among the American public, despite the fact that there isn’t persuasive evidence that many of those remedies are effective.
Medical experts are generally open to new therapies that have been proven to work. But many doctors worry about the potentially negative effects of Americans embracing alternative medicine: Since its products and practitioners are not as tightly regulated as “traditional” medicine, there’s a greater chance that people will get misled by potential misinformation. Health care is an area that’s already well primed for this dynamic. Misinformation about health issues is widespread, and about half of the U.S. population subscribes to at least one medical conspiracy theory.
In its exclusive interview, Australian Women’s Weekly reports that Belle Gibson was emotional throughout the conversation about her faked medical history. “She says she is passionate about avoiding gluten, dairy and coffee, but doesn’t really understand how cancer works,” the article notes.