Belle Gibson and the pernicious cult of ‘wellness’

We’re too eager to believe in the power of lifestyle change

28 March 2015

9:00 AM

28 March 2015

9:00 AM

Belle Gibson was a publicist’s dream: a ‘wellness guru’ and young mother with a wholesome blonde beauty, a wide white smile, and just enough tattoos to look modern. She had already encountered appalling adversity for one barely into her twenties: in 2009, she revealed, doctors had diagnosed her with malignant brain cancer and told her bluntly: ‘You’re dying. You have six weeks. Four months tops.’

Sickened by two months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, Gibson said, she had abandoned conventional treatment in favour of a range of holistic treatments, including Ayurvedic medicine and oxygen therapies. She embarked, too, on a gluten-free, refined sugar-free diet which she detailed on her 2013 Instagram blog @healing_belle. There, she announced her intention to continue healing herself from cancer ‘naturally’: it seemed that she had already defied quite astounding medical odds.

The blog became a successful iPhone and iPad food and lifestyle app called The Whole Pantry, which achieved over 300,000 downloads. Publishers excitedly took note, and last December The Whole Pantry book was published in Australia, illustrated with photographs of wholefoods — buckwheat pizza, overflowing bowls of chia seeds — casually but gorgeously displayed in rustic kitchen settings. The publicity described Belle as ‘an inspirational young mother’ who ‘after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer found herself unsupported by conventional medicine. She began a journey of self-education to treat herself through nutrition.’

Belle’s own introduction to the book contained some dramatic claims. She described growing up ‘in a very dysfunctional home’ with a mother who had multiple sclerosis and an autistic brother. At 12, she said, she moved out and discovered her first vegetable garden. Aged 20, ‘I had a stroke at work’, which led to a ‘diagnosis of malignant brain cancer’. She began to read up on nutrition — ‘one thing that really stayed with me was reading about the detoxification properties of lemons’ — and then ‘pulled myself out of chemo and radiotherapy — my doctors freaked out, but they couldn’t stop me.’ Thereafter, she started ‘empowering myself to save my own life’ (although last July she posted on Instagram the sad news that her cancer had inexorably spread: ‘I have cancer in my blood, spleen, brain, uterus and liver. I am hurting.’) The financial risk in launching The Whole Pantry app was rewarded when an Apple executive chose her app as one of the select few to be featured on the Apple watch.

But there were numerous weevils in The Whole Pantry story, and earlier this month they emerged en masse. Former friends and colleagues began to post sceptical accounts of Belle’s story on Facebook. Fairfax Media started asking serious questions about the ‘inspiring causes’ that Gibson said had profited from the proceeds of her app: several such named charities said they had never seen any money at all. She broke down in an interview with the Australian newspaper, while discussing the July claim that her cancer had spread. Now, Gibson told the interviewer — becoming vague and evasive — this bleak news appeared inaccurate: ‘I would say that it was more of a misdiagnosis than completely fictional.’ She refused to name the doctor responsible. Her story was crumbling: soon no one was sure that she had ever had brain cancer at all, or even of her real age. Soon after, she turned her Instagram account private. Penguin announced that it was suspending publication of the US and UK versions of the Whole Pantry book. Gibson has gone to ground.

Many of the people who so enthusiastically followed Gibson and her progress now feel furious and betrayed. Those in the media who lauded and promoted her have been publicly embarrassed. Elle Australia magazine, which ran a feature last December calling Gibson ‘the most inspiring woman you’ve met this year’, regretfully reflected on its encounter with her. Yet Lauren Sams, a writer on Cosmopolitan magazine, which had given her its ‘Fun Fearless Female’ award, expressed disbelief that anyone should criticise Penguin for not fact-checking Gibson’s story: ‘But why would they? I certainly wouldn’t, if I was in their position. Cancer is so all-consuming, so catastrophic, so final, that to question anyone’s diagnosis would just be downright evil.’

But would it really have been ‘downright evil’ to have asked for some more information on Gibson’s initial condition, or politely to request an interview with the doctors who were allegedly distraught when she first came off chemotherapy? If Gibson’s story had been published in a scientific journal, such questions would have been obligatory. Even in a newspaper article, some basic fact-checking and use of additional sources would have been expected. The real problem lay in the fact that Gibson’s story originated elsewhere, in a blog that quickly became part of the global ‘wellness industry’, a fast-growing business empire which runs partly on the free-flowing fuel of faith, assertion and anecdote, where words such as ‘inspiration’ and ‘empowerment’ recur frequently, and where blunt, evidence-based questions are often instinctively discouraged.

The peculiar, hazy rules of this industry — where lifestyle and diet meet health — are illustrated by its responses to Gibson’s serial claims. On the one hand, she impressed followers with the apparent triumph of her decision to heal herself through alternative therapies and diet. Yet Gibson’s sudden revelation last July that cancer had in fact spread throughout her body seemingly caused no one in the publishing industry to re-evaluate her claims, or even to pause and advise that this seriously ill young mother should urgently return to seek the help of the medical establishment. It is hard to know which template her promoters had in mind for Gibson: was she a genuine ‘medical miracle’ whose ‘detoxifying’ lifestyle had achieved results that defied scientific predictions, or an ‘inspirational’ campaigner and fundraiser whose public struggle against cancer nonetheless appeared doomed? So long as her Raw Chocolate Nutbutter Cups sold, it didn’t really seem to matter which.

Some commentators in Australia have noted similarities between Gibson’s story and that of the Melbourne woman Jess Ainscough, who died in February of a rare and aggressive form of cancer called epithelioid sarcoma. Ainscough was 22 when diagnosed, and decided to reject conventional treatments and her doctor’s advice to amputate her arm including the shoulder — a terrifying prospect for anyone, and perhaps even more so for a strikingly attractive young woman. Instead, she pursued alternative methods which included Gerson Therapy, a treatment partly based on raw juices and coffee enemas. Ainscough’s blog, The Wellness Warrior, attracted a large public following. Her life became a rigorous, punishing schedule of juicing, enemas, yoga, meditation and blogging in order to ‘bring my body to optimum health so that it can heal itself’. On her blog, she wrote that she saw herself as ‘part of an empowering wellness revolution, sweeping the planet’.

In 2012 Ainscough’s mother Sharyn was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she too followed Gerson Therapy until her death in 2013. Ainscough suffered an intensification of her own symptoms, until last December she announced that she had returned to conventional treatments. It proved too late. Dr David Gorski, an American oncologist, wrote sadly on his blog Science-Based Medicine: ‘Jessica Ainscough had one shot, a good shot’ — the agonising decision of an early shoulder amputation — but ‘she didn’t take her first shot’. He concluded that ‘Jess Ainscough was also a victim of the very pseudoscience that she promoted.’

The ‘wellness industry’, of course, covers a broad field, from health supplements to spa treatments, diet regimes to holiday retreats. In its more down-to-earth aspects, there is no reason why much of it cannot work in tandem with conventional medicine. Few doctors would deny that diet and behaviour have an important influence on health: both obesity and smoking, for example, are known to raise the risk of certain cancers. But so, too, do some genetic factors, and other triggers presently beyond medical analysis or control. Doctors must often deal in statistics and probabilities rather than certainties, not least because cancers themselves can be unpredictable.

The more extreme manifestations of ‘wellness’ theory, however, can take on some cultish aspects, including a deep distrust of conventional medicine combined with an irrational conviction that recovery from disease is chiefly a matter of willpower and dietary self-discipline. At its best, this can be misleading; at its worst, it is to blame for encouraging understandably frightened people to shun hospital treatments that have a respectable chance of helping them.

The UK journalists who wrote wittily and poignantly in the late 1990s about cancer and its treatment — most notably Ruth Picardie in the Observer and John Diamond in the Times — did a great deal to demystify the disease, while making their readers acutely aware of the thrill and preciousness of life. Yet Diamond, in particular, was very hard on the popular language of ‘battlers’ and ‘warriors’, saying: ‘I despise the set of warlike metaphors that so many apply to cancer.’ The reason, he said, stemmed from ‘a hatred for the sort of morality which says that only those who fight hard against their cancer survive it, or deserve to survive it — the corollary being that those who lose the fight deserved to do so.’

I wonder what Diamond would have made of Belle Gibson, who spoke the fashionable language of battle with fluent and apparently fraudulent ease, and is now hiding — along with her young son — from an angry army of former believers. Her falsehoods, if that’s what they are, were deeply culpable, and yet perhaps we should also look at those who so vigorously promoted them while suspending their own critical faculties. Sometimes one can even muster a stray flash of sympathy for Gibson, trapped in the big, runaway lie that everyone seemed to love.

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  • Ali

    The idea that we should ‘battle’ or ‘fight’ cancer in order to survive it is not confined to the woolly thinking of hippies and new age types. Much as I abhor anyone promoting the idea that eating organic food, or practising meditation can cure cancer, and would always prefer conventional scientific treatments, I also think the way modern therapies are pushed is based on the same kind of inhumanity.

    Chemotherapy and radiotherapy can provide miraculous cures, but in many circumstances they can only provide a couple of extra weeks or at best a few months at the end of life, when the patient is doped up to cure the pain or non compos mentis because of secondary brain tumors. Yet to refuse such treatments would make your relatives feel you weren’t ‘fighting’ hard enough.

    I think the idea that science can cure death is no less dangerous than the idea that hippy lifestyles can cure death. I think this is what lies behind the rush towards ‘assisted dying’ or legalizing euthanasia, because it starts from the belief that death is a choice.

    • Rose Taberner

      My experience of conventional treatment has been confronting but I knew/know exactly where I stood/stand before, during and after treatment, what my statistics are, the worst case scenario of side effects and how my medical team would handle them. I was both comforted mentally and comforted physically during tough times. I knew the treatment and my medical team collectively had been studied, tested and then tested some more. One targeted therapy I had took 12yrs to develop. Compare this to my friend who chose the alternative route. Some spiritual healer, come naturopath, come wellness guru blatantly announced to my friend that he, his wife and many others had been cured of cancer by ……..(insert some typical woo) and also by ……….(more typical woo) and he of course was the sole supplier in our area and it cost him a whopping $8,000 to get this typical woo equipment from another like minded Wooster. All he charged was a minimal $1,500 per treatment but if you pay more you can get his special secret woo which was really the thing that was going to make the difference. She is now lying in a hospital bed with advanced cancer that maybe, just maybe conventional treatment may give her a little more time with her family. These snake oil peddlers offer false hope and prey on desperate peoples vulnerability during their worst time. This was so evident with Jess Ainscough and the Gerson Institute that offered to save her limb and to eventually cure her of cancer. After her death, they cleaned their hands of her and announced that she was not on their protocol when she died even though she had stuck to it longer than the prescribed time. I know I have made a word salad here when all I really needed to say was that at least you know where you stand with conventional medicine, be it hopeful or not. Anecdotal evidence just doesn’t wash.

      • You haven’t made a word salad in any pejorative sense. You have written an excellent comment.

    • Damaris Tighe

      ‘the belief that death is a choice’: Excellent insight Ali.

    • Very balanced and thoughtful.

    • mark abrams

      death is what happens when one has no more choices to make. pretending it is a choice is a pernicious fiction and euthanasia is murder.

      • Barlion

        Euthanasia is not murder. I watched my mother slowly decay away from cancer for 8 years. Started as breast cancer, went into remission, came back, spread to other parts of the body ect ect. In the end she wanted nothing more than to die. To end the unmeasurable suffering she was enduring. But no, we can end a dogs suffering but humans don’t deserve that same respect. She died some months later unable to speak, unable to say goodby, unable to kiss her 14 year old some goodby. euthanasia is mercy, it is an option, it is humanity.

  • Mc

    At some point the infantilised, gullible people who buy into pseudoscience should acknowledge that the fault lies squarely with themselves.

    Isn’t it ironically amusing that Penguin Books dropped Belle Gibson’s book after doubts were raised about her claim of having had cancer, rather than steering clear of the book simply because pseudoscience is a scam.

  • Zed largo

    Lies, deceit and greed are the driving forces behind the so-called ethical business of pharmaceuticals. No greater unethical bunch of gangsters exists. Yes, they have some clever scientists working for them, and sometimes they discover very important drugs, but they are run by psychopathic crooks who have no interest whatsoever in the welfare of the public. Their intention is to make money, and they make it in tens of billions from people who trust them, but who know little about their con trickery.

    The fact is that in the main the community of people who seek natural remedies are honest, responsible people who seek to exercise their natural resources. This article stinks of commercial interests, even though it rightly criticises a woman who deceived others along with herself. There is a formula for making money: first you find something to frighten people and amplify it. Then you tell them they are powerless to deal with what frightens them. Then you create a product that promises to remove their fear, and sell it to them for a price that make you millions. Enter the pharmaceutical business with its promises of ending our suffering. What bollocks! I know this to be true because I made a fortune from pharmaceuticals, which was long before I awoke to the misery I was causing others from whom I profited.

    • What have pharmaceuticals to do with the reality of the article? Or can’t you read outside of your prejudices?

    • mark abrams

      Only psychopathic crooks claim to work for the welfare of the people . Only immature psychopathic crooks in training believe them. Developing new treatments and drugs requires intelligence, organized effort and vast amounts of capital , all of which deserve compensation. You clearly dont understand capitalism or understand that it is the only economic system which has or can create wealth and so improve health.

      • Zed largo

        You are a buffoon, simple as that. I made a small fortune from pharmaceuticals and know more about the business, and business in general than a rude and absurd idiot like you would ever know.

        • SecludedCompound


    • fig239

      next time you get bacterial pneumonia, forego those antibiotics and stick to some lavender oil and lemon tea. Let me know how that works out for you.

    • LettuceBalm

      “Their intention is to make money”. Unlike the naturopaths? Who often charge hundred of dollars per visit, take no insurance, and make a profit from the products they sell you themselves?

      “first you find something to frighten people and amplify it. Then you tell them they are powerless to deal with what frightens them. Then you create a product that promises to remove their fear, and sell it to them for a price that make you millions.” Like “toxins”?

  • mrsjosephinehydehartley

    Well i wouldn’t describe the amputation of an arm and shoulder ” a good shot”. i can understand how people , especially young people simply prefer to do something different.

    • And then there was poor Carenza of Time Team, who ‘only’ lost both her breasts… before she learned it was a wrong diagnosis, and she didn’t have breast cancer after all.

      If someone offered to lop half my body off (for so it would feel), I think I might only want to do it and remain alive for the two people that rely on me the most (and one of them’s a dog). To lose that much of oneself would surely feel like a partial suicide, and the pain of that might be almost unendurable.

  • Tremulous

    The only thing I would point out is that all of these “treatments” could be put under the heading `Placebo Effect’. Ben Goldacre has written about this at length.

  • Commie Dearest

    So much damage is done by the hucksters. My older brother, whom I love dearly, was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue a five years ago. He was tapped into the new-agey, wellness and nutrition stuff and got taken in by a guy who promised to use nutrition and “detoxification” along with super-low-dose chemo “bolstered” by glucose starvation. Funny thing is the doctor still charged the full amount for the chemo while using only 1/10 the effective dose. After burning through his savings (insurance usually won’t cover hucksters) he was kicked out by the quack and realized he had been take and desperately needed to go get standard therapy if he hoped to live. He hooked up with a mainstream cancer treatment center which also did nutritional and psychological therapy as an adjunct. Unfortunately, because he had been exposed to the standard therapy, they had to go with a second-line therapy along with the radiation. It was grueling but my brother stuck it out and is cancer-free after 5 years and in all probability for the longer term. He was lucky. The poor victims who try to cure themselves with hope and quack remedies and eventually succumb are sad and needlessly lost.

  • mark abrams

    The battle metaphor comes not from fighting the disease but from the struggle to remain oneself. When one is very sick and in pain it is indeed a struggle to try to retain ones old habits and personality. Getting dressed, indeed moving at all can be very difficult. Eating and exercise can be a burden. Yet if these things are abandoned one cannot recover. So one may not like the vocabulary of struggle, and combat but , perhaps unfortunately, it is often the correct vocabulary.

    • dee Johnson

      Why is it only those who have Cancer feel the need to fight the disease?
      Other chronically ill people resist that urge.

  • dee Johnson

    I too hate the words “survivor” and “warrior” because these are misleading and inappropriate word to describe a disease. That’s right what you have been diagnosed with (Cancer), it’s a disease that will not leave your body.

  • WimsThePhoenix

    It doesn’t help that medical science is corrupt to the extent that it pushes carbs as the normal primary mode of energy rather than fats, even though hunter-gatherers evolved over 2 million years obtaining their energy from fats. Carbs as a primary energy source have only been available for the last 10,000 years, before which time, the only appreciable quantities could be found as caches of honey or the occasional tuber root. Carbs are the root cause of many cancers. They lead to obesity wherein the depositions of fat sit for years storing fat-soluble toxins; the are a repository for oestrogen which itself can lead to cancer; the roller-coaster of glucose and insulin leads to diabetes which leads to pancreatic cancer.

    All the while we cannot trust our doctors, it is natural that people seek alternative therapies. All the while medicine gets its funding from the same people who are funded by Big Food and Big Pharma, we cannot trust them.

    The 21st century has been a big disappointment to me. As a child in the 1960s I was looking forward to flying cars, colonies on Mars and world peace.

    Now, ludicrously, we are STILL having mediaeval wars over crazy religions, making up stories about man’s ability to affect the climate, and attributing some kind of “nutrition” to empty calories provided in a dangerous form, all for the same reason: corrupt politicians.

    • Brenda Unibrow

      Ironic, isn’t?

      De-evolution blues… evolving toward complete and utter stupidity and mindless BS despite unimaginable technology advances…

      My theory is the combination of technology, socialism, and media mask, hide, and absorb the negative consequencesconsequences (risks/impacts/cost) allowing it to flourish uncontested.

      In the insurance industry they try to take into account people absorbing increased risk if somebody else is going to pay for it.

      But we don’t do that with many behaviors/practices, such that we have raised a bunch of pampered idiots. What’s even worse, they cannot critically think for themselves.

      In the old days, it was that type of stupidity that got eaten by bears, starved to death, or defeated by rivaling clans…