I was heartbroken when I heard that you, like me, were suffering from a rare and aggressive cancer. My thoughts immediately went to your beautiful 6 year old daughter, who I know is the light of your life. I remembered the conversation we had when I first met you a year and a half ago – right before my life shattering diagnosis and long before the current ugliness began. You were so happy that day! A small group of us sat in our mutual friend’s living room, talking about life. We had one of those deep conversations about the universe being in balance, about seeking out the positive – exactly the kind of discussion that takes place with friends whose champagne brunch has turned into an all-day event. I was visiting from out of town, but I immediately felt at home with you and our mutual friend’s other friends. We connected, and after that day, you were also my friend.
A week after we met, I learned I had cancer. The diagnosis – high grade neuroendocrine carcinoma, also called Small Cell Cervical Cancer based on the tumor location – was brutal. The disease is very rare, with an unknown cause and limited information about treatment options, but also deadly, with survival rates below 20%. I was very private about it at first, but I slowly began to acknowledge the disease to family and close friends. Our mutual friend in your town asked if she could share the news with her circle of friends, which included you. I agreed, and the outpouring of support via Facebook and through care packages I received in the mail was touching. These gestures were very meaningful to me as I recovered from major surgery, and then as I completed 28 sessions of radiation. I was encouraged by your kind words as I endured 6 rounds of extremely aggressive chemotherapy, where I was forced to embrace my baldness while trying not to lose my sense of myself as a wife, professional and marathon runner. You were part of a larger cast that kept me going. It was tough, but I finished treatment in December of 2013 and went on to live my life in remission, hoping like hell that I’d be an exception to the rule that this beast would not come back and kill me.
In June of 2014, I made it back to Logan for another visit, happy to still be in remission. Our friend held a party in my honor, and I got to see you again. It was wonderful to reconnect with the people who had made such an impact on me when I’d met them the year before. You and I had some time to visit one on one, and I remember how complimentary you were about how I’d handled my health challenges. You went on and on about how brave I was, how much strength it must have taken to keep going, to not just curl up in a fetal position and give up. I told you what I always say in this scenario: I wasn’t given a choice, so I HAD to keep going, for myself but more importantly for my loved ones. You said you could never handle something like this, but I told you that wasn’t true. Your daughter was playing with her friends nearby while we were talking, and I asked how you handle being sick when you need to take care of her. You told me that you just do what is needed for her, since she comes first. I told you that you’d do exactly what I’d done in my circumstances – you would do what you had to do, you’d get through it, and you’d do it for her. Our conversation made me feel good, and I felt like maybe my cancer could have inspired you in some way. I’m not a big believer that “everything happens for a reason,” but for those few minutes, you made me feel like my terrible experience could have a positive impact on others.
For the second year in a row, I got bad news right after visiting Logan. My cancer was back, this time with a metastatic tumor in the liver (which multiplied into 4 new tumors within weeks), which meant I was now officially Stage IV. My fight resumed – more surgery, followed by an experimental targeted drug therapy that produces side effects that make me consistently sicker than my 6 months of chemo hell. Then last month, I got a tearful call from our mutual friend in Logan: you were diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, also rare and deadly, just like me. Our conversation from June echoed in my head. I had told you to put yourself in my shoes, and here you were. I was heartbroken, for you and especially your daughter. I told our friend to let you know you could call me if you wanted to talk. I didn’t reach out to you, as I understood that everyone reacts to a cancer diagnosis differently, and that you’d let me know if I could help you. But I was ready to help, and my heart went out to you. I was grateful to see the community support you received after going public. Raising awareness of rare diseases, especially aggressive ones that threaten women in their prime, is a cause that is very personal to me! When I saw your television interview in which you said some of the same words I’d spoken to you in June, I felt as though perhaps sharing my experience with you then was in some way helping you cope now.
Now I’ve heard the news that you do not have cancer, and that you made it all up to steal money, and possibly to get sympathy. First and foremost, I am thrilled at this news. I am beyond relieved that you, a beautiful and smart 26 year old woman, are not dying what would be an excruciatingly painful and premature death. Your child will grow up with the chance to know you, and she will forgive you. I personally know 6 women with my disease, the oldest of whom was 45 and the youngest who was 26, like you, who died in the last 9 months. Their children, partners, parents and friends are devastated by their loss, and they would give anything to trade having to deal with the fallout from your crime with the finality of early death in a nanosecond. You will make it through this, as painful and hopeless as it may seem now. Be grateful for that chance. Your cry for help has been heard, and I hope you will get the help you need, even as you are paying the legal consequences of your actions.
As a cancer patient who struggles daily with the uncertainty of whether this will be my last Christmas, whether I will live to celebrate my 40th birthday in January of 2016, whether I will ever feel “normal” again, I should feel angry about what you’re alleged to have done. I feel as though my painful experience did inspire you, though not in any remotely positive way, and I am shocked and saddened by it. I do not wish to persecute you though; if anything, I want you to know how much I hurt for you. Surely you did not think about the damage you would be causing. I do not believe you realized that preying on the goodwill of friends and strangers ultimately steals from those who are dying and desperately need help. My 6 friends who died this year? They might have been saved if they could have had their tumors genetically tested in order to find targeted drugs to save them. The test costs about $1000, and if you really stole over $17,000, then that money might have saved 17 women just like you, including 26-year old Jade, a mother of three, and 26-year old Imee, a single mother of 6-year old Brandon, or another single mother, Melissa, whose son Talon is also now an orphan. You didn’t mean to do harm to them, but this is the real human cost of faking a serious illness. I forgive you and only want you to understand the enormity of this crime. Maybe your experience will inspire someone who might consider perpetrating such a fraud to think about the toll it takes, not just on the perpetrator but also on those who are truly suffering.
With Sadness and Compassion,
Amy Stills suffers from high grade neuroendocrine cervical cancer. To learn more, visit damncancer.com.