A mother in Utica, Ohio, has been charged with faking cancer in her 4-year-old son and profiting from the scam. Emily Creno, also known as Emily King, told friends, family and others she met via Facebook and other social media sites that her son JJ had a type of terminal brain cancer called pleuropulmonary blastoma, and would only live a year and a half longer.
An outpouring of support soon followed, with hundreds of people offering sympathy, condolences, support, money and gifts. Local firefighters opened their station to JJ and his mother, and fundraisers were set up for the child.
Creno’s hoax unraveled when one of her supporters was banned from a Facebook page for asking the name of JJ’s oncologist. Puzzled and suspicious that Creno would refuse to name her doctor, the local news media was contacted and an investigation by 10TV’s Paul Aker uncovered the truth.
According to a story in the Newark Advocate, “Creno was suspected of taking her son to Children’s Hospital in Columbus numerous times for medical symptoms such as seizures and difficulty breathing.
“Each time (the child) was brought into the hospital, staff was unable to find any signs or symptoms of medical distress,” the statement of facts said. Creno also “represented to others” that her son had cancer by shaving her son’s head and telling him that he would die, according to the statement of facts.”
Patients who fake disease are said to have a factitious disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – the so-called bible of mental health disorders issued by the American Psychiatric Association — notes that “individuals usually present their history with great dramatic flair, but are extremely vague and inconsistent when questioned in more detail. There may be uncontrollable pathological lying, in a manner intriguing to the listener, about any aspect of the individual’s history or symptomatology.
“These individuals often have extensive knowledge of medical terminology and hospital routines … After an extensive work-up of their initial chief complaints proves negative, they will often complain of other physical problems and produce more factitious symptoms.”
It is not necessarily illegal to pretend to have an illness, of course. Usually people get into legal trouble when they ask for (or accept) donations and gifts.
In 2009, a young Canadian woman named Ashley Kirilow made news for fighting bravely against breast, ovarian, brain and liver cancers, and she raised money for her treatments.
Kirilow and her supporters started a charity, and another Toronto charity flew her to Disney World as her claimed dying wish. Altogether over $20,000 was raised for her. In fact she never had cancer. She had shaved her head and eyebrows to fake the signs of chemotherapy and had spent much of the money given to her on personal expenses. Kirilow was arrested and charged with fraud.
Why would someone go through all the trouble to pretend to have a dreaded disease such as cancer? What could be the motivation to endure the cost — and, in some cases, physical pain — of months or years of real treatment for a faked illness?
Julie Cunningham and Marc Feldman, writing about “Munchausen by Internet” in the March-April 2011 edition of The Academy of Psychosomatic Medicine journal, note that “factitious illness (FD) behavior is not primarily motivated by a desire for external rewards, such as economic gain, access to narcotics or evasion of criminal responsibility. Instead, persons with FD regard the sick role as a means to obtain attention, nurturance and sympathy from others; to control others; or to express rage.
“The sick role is so intrinsically rewarding for these individuals that many undergo painful, extensive, and invasive medical procedures so others will accept and treat them as patients.”
This situation was not rewarding to little JJ, who endured needless medical procedures and believed he would die soon. This case suggest a specific type of factitious disorder called Munchausen’s by Proxy, in which an innocent child is traumatized because of a parent or caregiver’s lies about their health.
Court papers described JJ enduring many months of medical treatments in search of his non-existent disease, including dozens of blood and specimen tests and the equivalent of nearly one continuous week of EEG monitoring — all the while his mother enjoyed the sympathy, attention nd donations of well-meaning supporters.
Creno has been charged with endangering children, a third-degree felony, and additional charges may be brought as the investigation continues.