21-year-old woman finally speaks about how her mom made her fake cancer as a child
When Hannah Milbrandt was seven years old, her mother told her she had cancer.
Being that young, Hannah had no idea what the word "cancer" even meant, let alone how the disease would apparently impact her. Over the course of several months, she would learn how life could change so quickly, and then how easy it was to be manipulated by someone she trusted.
Now 21, Hannah has shared her story.
"I was too young to fully understand what it meant, but watching my dad, Bob, break down in tears was enough to make me scared," she said, recalling the evening when her mom, Teresa, sat her family down and said that the doctor had found a tumor at the base of her spine.
"It could be terminal," Teresa said.
Hannah had gone to the doctor for nothing more than a cough and a mild fever, so nobody expected such a drastic outcome. With just that one tiny bit of news, though, her entire life changed.
"Mom made me wear a surgical mask, telling me it would stop other people’s germs making me sicker," Hannah recalled. "I hated the way people treated me differently, with pity in their eyes."
But it wasn't just pity she was given; people from her town began to host fundraisers for her, and the local church helped collect money to help Teresa pay for the expensive medical treatment that Hannah apparently needed. According to Hannah, her mom used to refer to her as "[her] million dollar baby," but the young girl could never quite work out what she meant by that.
Unfortunately, the manipulation didn't end there.
Teresa drugged Hannah in order to keep up the pretence that she was severely ill, plying her with medications that gave her "awful headaches," and made her feel "exhausted".
"I hated that I couldn’t ride my bike, or play with my friends," Hannah recalled. "I had to wear my mask to class, and Mom came in to tell my teachers how sick I was, and what to do if I had a seizure."
Understandably, the emotional toll on Hannah was extreme.
"My biggest fear was being separated from my family. At that age, I hadn’t got to grips with what death was, but I knew it would mean I wouldn’t be with my parents and that terrified me. I began to fear being alone at night and would beg to sleep in my parents’ room, but mom would say no."
Gradually, the lies became more extreme, with Teresa drugging Hannah so that she passed out, then telling her later on that she'd been to the doctor, or that a nurse named Beth had visited her home in order to treat her. "Beth came regularly ... although I never saw her," Hannah said. "I’d wake up with bandages where Beth had treated me."
By the time it transpired that Teresa had been lying, the effects of her deception had hit Hannah hard. The little girl had no hair (supposedly because "Beth" had shaved it off while she slept), the community had raised over $31,000 for her, and her mother had told her that she had only weeks to live. She was devastated.
But then it all came crashing down.
"Out of the blue, it all ended as suddenly as it had begun when Mom, Dad and Grandma were all arrested. One of my teachers had noticed my hair was growing back fuzzily but evenly, instead of the patchy regrowth chemo patients experience. She became suspicious and reported my mom to the local family services department."
She went on:
"When confronted, mom admitted right away to faking my cancer and scamming the community out of $31,000 (£23,000). She was put in a psychiatric hospital, while dad was released on bail. ‘You’re not sick anymore,’ he wept, hugging me. I was so happy I wasn’t going to die. But my relief was short-lived as I was put into foster care."
Hannah's father always maintained he had no idea about Teresa's scheme, "but pleaded guilty to child endangerment as well as a felony theft, which meant he did not admit guilt, but recognized prosecutors had enough evidence to convict."
"Despite being so young, I knew what mom had done was wrong," Hannah said. "She never apologized or explained, although she told a newspaper she was scared my dad was going to leave her, and thought if I was sick he’d stay."
Hannah lived in care for a year before her aunt gained custody of her. It wasn't until she was 15 years old that her dad finally got released, and she was reunited with him. Even then, she could never get over the lies her mother told.
"I’m still haunted by what mom did, I don’t think I’ll ever truly get over it," she said. "I’m now at university, studying to be a social worker. I want to help kids in foster care, because I know how scary that can be."