In the annals of asshattery, transgressions fall along a spectrum. Some are minor, like failing to refill the water in the office Keurig machine. Others aim higher by trying to manufacture a wholly ridiculous outrage campaign about Jesus-hating coffee cups.
And then there are people who fake cancer on national television.
Into that last, particularly distasteful category it seems we can file Brooks Ayers, a cast member of The Real Housewives of Orange County. After claiming for at least a season to be suffering from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, going so far as to proffer bills from a California hospital for the chemotherapy he supposedly received there, he was forced to issue a deeply apologetic statement admitting they were fake when the hospital issued its own statement denying he’d ever been treated there.
Whoopsie-doo! Though he is still standing by his claim that he has real cancer, it’s hard to overlook the inconsistencies the entertainment media has been raising in his story when he offers ersatz documents to bolster his side of things. Real patients tend to have real bills on hand.
I am not a regular viewer of the reality show on which he starred. From what I can tell, he wasn’t using his faux diagnosis to raise money for treatment. As best I can tell, “get more attention on a reality program” is the most plausible justification for his concocting a fake lymphoma story—which, given the lengths reality stars will go to keep eyeballs focused on themselves, seems plausible enough to me. And several of Ayers’s fellow Real Housewives cast members, most notably Meghan King Edmonds, expressed skepticism regarding his sympathy-garnering diagnosis during the series’ 10th season.
It also seems Ayers took his lie to extreme lengths. His ex Vicki Gunvalson recently claimed she’d seen his cancer bills and even picked up her former beau from the California cancer treatment center City of Hope.
“He was there all morning, so how do you think anything other than he’s getting chemo? You go to City of Hope because you have cancer, not because you have nothing else to do during the day,” she told Extra.
“I’m guilty of loving him and believing him. Who hasn’t believed someone that you loved?” she continued. “And why would you lie about cancer when I’ve had three friends die of it in the last two years? I had my dearest friend just die of stomach cancer.”
Ayers’ case appears different from that of Yolanda Foster, a fellow denizen of the “Real Housewives” universe. While I have serious doubts about the legitimacy of the illness for which she is being treated, I see no reason to question the reality of her symptoms. She is clearly suffering from something. Whether Ayers has some kind of disorder—or is merely mendacious—is far less clear.
There certainly are mental disorders that drive people to create false or overblown symptoms for the purpose of seeking attention or sympathy. Known as Factitious Disorder, patients may undergo invasive or even painful procedures or treatments, so long as they prolong the appearance of a legitimate medical problem. It’s also commonly known as “Munchausen syndrome,” with “Munchausen by proxy” being the term for situations where someone deliberately sickens another person (often a child) to receive the same kind of attention. (Think of the diabolical mother in The Sixth Sense who poisoned her daughter.) Had Ayers actually found a doctor willing to administer chemotherapy in the absence of real disease, this diagnosis might pertain.
Those with a similar but different mental disorder known as Somatic Symptom Disorder can feel symptoms despite the lack of a physical ailment. What differentiates it is that sufferers really have symptoms that distress them, and that seem very real; patients with Factitious Disorder know they are creating their own symptoms.
In neither of these disorders, however, do patients create or experience symptoms for the sake of financial gain or other benefits, such as getting out of work, military service, or other obligations. When patients fake or exaggerate symptoms for the sake of these other goals, medical professionals refer to it as “secondary gain.” It can accompany both real and sham illness. A student who fails to control a chronic illness by shirking recommended care in order to miss school, for example, is pursuing secondary gain, and may be doing so deliberately or subconsciously.
When a person makes up an illness or symptom purely in pursuit of these advantages, it’s known as “malingering.” Those seeking payment in a bogus worker’s compensation or personal injury case are one example, as are those who come in with false complaints of pain seeking narcotics. Dealing with a patient one suspects of malingering can pose a significant challenge for medical providers.
Assuming the fake medical bill is the only one that exists and Ayers has no further evidence to support his claim to suffer from cancer, his situation seems to fit at least one of the categories above. Certainly the attention and support from his ex Vicki—as well as millions of viewers of a well-established reality show—looks a lot like secondary gain to me, though whether or not any diagnosis really fits is a question for his doctors to decide.
People can be motivated to make up illnesses for a host of reasons. The differences between the disorders that lead them to do so can be subtle, and a challenge for medical providers to decipher. In the case of Ayers and the viewers he attempted to mislead, however, it would be hard to blame them if they simply settled on the simplest explanation and called it a lie.