MECHANICSVILLE, Va. (WTVR) - For the last two years Martha Nicholas has been known as the woman who faked having cancer. This week a judge handed down a 10-year prison sentence to the 43-year-old Mechanicsville mother after she plead no contest in January to Medicaid fraud and obtaining money under false pretenses. The judge suspended all 10 years of that sentence, meaning Nicholas will serve no time behind bars.
Judge Overton Harris said he suspended the sentence because he believed jail time served no purpose. Harris said he believed Nicholas’ case has more to do with mental illness than fraud.
Nicholas and her husband spoke to CBS 6 investigative reporter Catie Beck about her illness, in an interview she called her "first and last."
"When did you have the realization that you didn't have cancer, when did that sink in for you?" Beck asked Nicholas.
"I don't know that it really hit me until I was at the psychiatric hospital and you know I was getting pressured to try and figure some things out," she replied.
Nicholas said it was while undergoing mental treatment that she realized her diagnosis and battle with the disease existed entirely in her mind.
"To think that I am capable of doing something like that is terrifying," she said.
It was an anonymous tip that lead Hanover investigators to Nicholas two years ago. At that time, the married mother of three was receiving community sympathy and charitable donations by sharing her cancer story with others.
The investigation led to her arrest, a high profile scandal and a series of court battles that left Nicholas with misdemeanor and felony convictions on her record.
While the court found her guilty of financial fraud, some in the public viewed her crime as an emotional scam. This is something Nicholas said she came to terms with while in a mental hospital.
"I had to sit there with a crayon and a blank piece of paper and write down notes, I literally went back through my whole life because at this point I'm thinking how much of my life has been wrong, a lie whatever you want to call it," she said.
During her sentencing, more than a half dozen people spoke on Nicholas' behalf, calling her a kind, loving person. They said the root of her mental illness could be the loss of her brother in a fire as a child or her caring for a dying father-in-law for years.
Her doctors said her stress, coupled with depression, created a dissociative identity disorder. Nicholas had, what she described as, a psychotic break. That break, doctors said, resulted in physical symptoms.
She became frail, sickly and eventually was hospitalized in hospice care. On what many believed was her death bed, her husband learned from an investigators that his wife did not have cancer. He learned there had been no cancer treatments.
At that point, Steve Nicholas turned to his wife and asked her about it.
"There was no deception in her eyes," he said. "This was a true experience that she went through."
While Steve Nicholas said he continues to stand by his wife, others have not.
"I'm sure you understood partially why people were so angry," Beck said to the couple.
"I felt like people had the right to be angry and frustrated and sad and you know hurt," Martha replied.
Martha and Steve said they have become isolated and shunned in their community. They said one morning they awoke to a "For Sale" sign on their front yard. They said their children's friends no longer invited them out and those friends were no longer allowed to come over.
The American Cancer Society, an organization that once hailed Martha as an inspiring survivor, felt betrayed and no longer wanted anything to do with the family.
Martha Nicholas said those external factors and feelings can't compare to what is now happening inside her head.
"I feel horrible every day. I live with it every day," she said. "Knowing what I've done to everybody but especially my husband, my parents and my kids and I don't think there's any worse punishment than that."
"There are going to be people out there that refuse to believe this is mental illness," Beck countered. "That think this was all a big fraud and that this was maybe a money making scheme. How do you live with those people? Do you try and convince them or accept that that's where they're always going to be?"
"I have to respect the fact they don't understand this or that they don't believe this for whatever reason," Nicholas replied. "I know it's a very unusual situation, it's bizarre, it's bizarre to us."
Nicholas said she is now in therapy and taking medication for her mental illness. She said the several thousand dollars given to her for her cancer related medical expenses has been repaid. So has $20,000 in money she received from Medicaid.
Nicholas said one of the most unfortunate outcomes of this situation is the price her children have paid for her mistakes. She said she wants her children to be able to live a normal life.
"Not because I deserve it, because they do, they deserve to have the mom I'm capable of being and have been in the past," she said.
In search of that more normal life, Nicholas and her family plan to move from their Mechanicville home.
Nicholas said she is "absolutely sorry" for what she did, but she added she would not let this crime define her.
"Whether you believe me or not, maybe people think I'm a sociopath, but I'm the furthest thing from it. I love people," she said.