Did “Alternative Medicine” Kill Steve Jobs?

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When they first discovered the tumor in his pancreas in October 2003, his doctors told him an immediate operation was necessary, and could lead to a cure.

As first reported by Peter Elkind in 2008, Jobs decided to think different, declined surgery, and explored alternative medicine treatments for his disease.

Nine months later, in July 2004, the tumor had grown. Only then would he allow his doctors to operate.

Would Steve Jobs be alive today had he consented to surgery when they first discovered his tumor?

Without knowing more details about his case, such as the grade and stage of the tumor, it is hard to say.

However, Dr. Roderich Schwartz, an experienced cancer surgeon has said waiting more than a few weeks to take action on such a rare diagnosis “makes no sense because you don’t know what the potential for growth or spread is.”

Steve Jobs is not the first public figure to seek answers outside conventional medical science.

  • Steve McQueen (1930-1980) was probably the first modern celebrity to attract widespread public attention with his efforts to cure asbestos-related cancer through unorthodox treatments in Mexico, where he died.
  • Farrah Fawcett (1947-2009) and Bret Hudson (1953- ) sought unconventional treatments for anal and throat cancers, respectively. They even underwent treatment at the same German cancer clinic. Even after her cancer regressed following alternative treatments, Farrah eventually lost her battle with anal cancer on June 24, 2009. Bret however was declared cancer free after completing a conventional chemotherapy and radiation regimen.
  • Beastie Boyz’s Adam Yauch (1964- ) developed, and beat, cancer of the salivary gland. He attributes his success to augmenting his treatments of conventional surgery and radiation therapy, with becoming a vegan at the recommendation of Tibetan doctors (augmenting conventional therapy is technically called complementary medicine). Yauch’s introduction to Tibetan medicine came after converting from Judaism to Buddhism.

Steve Jobs, also a Buddhist, was reportedly skeptical about mainstream medicine.

While his uncompromising personality and dedication to unconventional-ism undoubtedly changed the way interact with technology forever, that same stubbornness may have also lead to his demise.

Arthur D. Levinson, Apple’s Director who is a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and a biotechnology executive at Genentech, along with other board members pleaded with Jobs to have the surgery. ”There was genuine concern on the part of several board members that he may not have been doing the best thing for his health,”says an Apple insider.”But Steve is Steve. He can be pretty stubborn.”

“Surgery is the only treatment modality that can result in cure,” Dr. Jeffrey A. Norton, chief of surgical oncology at Stanford, wrote in a 2006 medical journal article about this kind of pancreatic cancer.

While it was Norton, who is one of the foremost experts in the field, ultimately removed the tumor, Jobs decision to seek alternate forms of treatment, such as a special diet, among other alternative treatments could have been what cost him his life.

Dr. Roderich Schwarz (quoted earlier) says he is unaware of any evidence that a special diet can be helpful. “But the patient decides. If they believe an herbal diet can do miracles, they have to make the decision. Every once in a while you have somebody who decides something you wish they wouldn’t.”

Furthermore, to date, there is no evidence that indicates successful “alternative treatments” for Jobs’ form of tumor.

According to Dr. Edzard Ernst, an international authority on alternative medicine and author of the book Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine

 “There are far too many charlatans who manage to convince desperate patients to abandon effective treatments in favour of ineffective alternative treatments. This often hastens or even causes death. In my view, this behavior is outright criminal.”

Could it be that Steve Jobs was so committed to the concept of “think different” that he was unable to “think clearly” until it was too late?

Is it possible that his need to defy convention left him vulnerable to alternative medicine practitioners in need of a major endorsement to validate their “alternative” treatment? Was their success more important than Job’s health at the most critical moment of his treatment?

Buddhist theories of medicine say the reason people get sick is through one of  “three poisons:” greed, anger and ignorance.

That’s like saying the iPad is made from earth, wind, fire and water.

Why would someone as technologically sophisticated as Jobs base life-and-death decisions about his health on ancient philosophy, especially when there have recently been more breakthroughs in cancer research than at any other point in history?

Perhaps Watler Isaacson’s new biographywill shed more light on the medical history of Jobs’ tumor including details of the alternative medicine treatments he pursued.

Until then, we are left with the conclusion that Steve Jobs died just as he lived — thinking differently.

Mark Boguski, M.D., Ph.D. is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and is a member of the Society for Participatory Medicine, "a movement in which networked patients shift from being mere passengers to responsible drivers of their health" and in which professional health care providers encourage "empowered patients" and value them as full partners in managing their health and wellness.

16 Comments

  1. Pingback: Did “Alternative Medicine” Kill Steve Jobs? | Celebrity Diagnosis | The Cancer Site

  2. Sneaky Vegan

    October 14, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    Having lost three people in my family to this same type of cancer, each within 8 months of an early diagnosis, I submit that it’s much more likely that “thinking different” and alternative treatments are in fact what allowed Mr. Jobs to extend his life as long as he did – and probably much more comfortably than he might have under more conventional protocols. I’ve worked with many cancer fighters and survivors and know of none who lived for 8 years with this particular type of cancer. Bravo to all those who live – and die – on their own terms.

    • Dr. M

      October 14, 2011 at 7:58 pm

      We’re sorry to hear about how much your family has suffered. Have you ever consulted a genetic counselor? Several types of pancreatic cancers can run in families. The more common, and deadly, pancreatic adenocarcinoma is known to be associated with certain genetic variations (see http://www.resoundinghealth.com/casebook/show/54). PNET (pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor) – the kind Steve Jobs had — can be part of an inherited syndrome called Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia, type 1 (MEN1) (see http://www.endocrine.niddk.nih.gov/pubs/men1/men1.aspx). We suggest that you draw out your family tree (examples here http://bit.ly/qPIcaD and here http://bit.ly/qFaRL3), take them to your doctor and request a referral/consultation with a member of the National Society of Genetic Counselors, http://www.nsgc.org/.

    • Dr. Tim Merrick

      November 16, 2011 at 9:57 am

      Thank you for your comment, Sneaky Vegan. What the article GLARINGLY ignores is how many elect for conventional medical intervention and die anyway–often with more pain and indignity.
      I do not know if Mr. Jobs made the right decision. Only he can know that. And likewise, his doctors do not know if choosing conventional medicine would have helped AT ALL.
      I respect his doctors for trying to do what they thought was best. I respect Mr. Jobs even more for sticking with his decisions against an avalanche of mainstream hysterical hype.

      • Dr. B

        November 16, 2011 at 12:41 pm

        Dear Dr. Merrick. Thank you for your comment. Please have a look at our follow-up article on Jobs’ Cancer Timeline and description of Jobs’ legendary “reality distortion field.”

  3. Bonnie Bolash

    October 18, 2011 at 10:01 pm

    It is always sad to hear of someone’s death being attributed to one thing or another. We do not know the circumstances of this person’s health and that is why we have laws to protect people’s privacy. I know of two people that died within weeks of a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. We will learn more about people’s private moments as we move to electronic medical records and people’s private moments will become numbers on the government or insurance industries radar and maybe then we will be able to say anything about anything. Human beings are more complex then we can imagine. Their stories are their stories and we should listen to them.

  4. Allyndreth Stead

    October 19, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    I agree with ‘sneaky vegan’. It is very rare to live so long with pancreatic cancer, and to intimate that seeking alternate therapies killed Mr. Jobs is to deny the fact that most people with his cancer die within 1 year, even with an early diagnosis and receiving surgery and the best Western Medicine has to offer.

    In addition, many of our cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, are a direct cause of a high proportion of ‘cancer’ deaths. Yet, we do not say that if only so-and-so had not had radiation & chemo, they would be alive today.

    We should respect Mr. Jobs decision and applaud that he survived as long as he did. Could he have beaten cancer if he had just had surgery AND followed his alternative treatment? Possibly. But we don’t know.

    • Dr. B

      October 19, 2011 at 5:15 pm

      Many readers are still confused about the difference between pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (PNETs) and the much more common, and deadly, pancreatic adenocarcinoma (“pancreatic cancer”). Steve Jobs had a PNET, which has a much better prognosis and a much longer average survival time than “pancreatic cancer.” We’ve been covering this story since March 2009 and have provided periodic reminders that the vast majority of mainstream media have always oversimplified the case and have ultimately misled the public. The logic behind our story is based on the fact that Mr. Jobs’ tumor was a PNET. Jobs died because his PNET had metastasized. The bottom line is that the longer the time that elapses between diagnosis and surgery, the more likely that any tumor will grow and metastasize. This is reason why the 9-month delay in potentially curative surgery was vigorously opposed by Jobs’ doctors and Apple board members. Had surgery been performed earlier, it is possible that neither the Whipple procedure nor the subsequent liver transplant would have been necessary.

      • Samantha

        January 29, 2012 at 2:57 am

        Dr. B, thank you for stressing that cancer is not just cancer. There are sub categories, there are hormone receptors and so much more to consider and people that don’t understand these things don’t understand that harm can be done by even simple things like certain dietary practices and vitamin regimens. I was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer last year and have been bombarded by people with alternative treatments I should do. Everything from drinking pureed spinach to injecting a homemade baking soda solution into my tumor and I am amazed that the “medical professionals” suggesting these things don’t know the first thing about how cancer works or what it really is.
        If eating healthy and exercise were going to heal cancer then people like Linda McCartney wouldn’t have died from it.

  5. Chris

    October 24, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    I’m an MEN type 1 patient, in fact, I’m one of the lucky rare birds that actually crosses over into the MEN 2 type. I was diagnosed with multiple tumors in my pancreas in 2006.

    As I watched 60 minutes last night I was floored to hear Mr. Jobs went to the hospital for kidney stones and that’s when they found the tumor in his pancreas. Classic MEN 1 symptoms. I’ve had kidney stones, a thymus carcinoid, lung carcinoid, medullary thyroid cancer and the aforementioned PNET’s. I’m alive and well because our family history is pretty well documented now. The only thing keeping me alive is regular screenings. Sadly, I’m quite sure Mr. Jobs would still be alive today if he would have known about MEN 1. Watching 60 minutes, it’s understandable to see why he wasn’t privy to regular screenings seeing as he was adopted.

    • Bill

      September 27, 2012 at 3:05 pm

      I agree Chris. I too am a MEN-1 patient. My awareness began with kidney stones, then hyperparathyroidism, and then acid refulx and diarhaea. Imaging found a tumor and then 3 months later, the tumor had grown and they saw a few others.

      I am now going on 9 years since my surgery to remove gastrinomas and neuro-endocrine tumors from my duodenum and surrounding lymph nodes and pancreas. My surgeon said had I waited another 3-6 months, things could have been worse and matastisized to the liver.

      I haves since done genetic testing on my family and fortunately, neither of my children have it.

      Self-awareness is key and staying on top of things is essential. I monitor blood work annually and get annual imaging to monitor.

      I was treated at MD Anderson in Houston, TX and have nothing but positive things to say about that center, the physicians, and the level of capable care they provide. They without a doubt, saved my life.

      I was disheartened to learn Steve Jobs had a very similar situation. I am pretty confident had he been on top of his heatlth, he would still be with us today.

  6. Magnificent website. Lots of useful info here. I am sending it to some pals ans also sharing in delicious. And certainly, thanks for your sweat!

  7. Stephanie

    December 11, 2012 at 6:21 pm

    Thank you so much for this insightful article and all the comments! Cancer is certainly one of the most challenging diagnoses to handle, and the loss of Steve Jobs to pancreatic cancer only serves to remind us of this. His talent and determination have changed the way in which we view personal computers and multimedia experiences. However, his unconventionality in opting for alternative medicines illustrates the need for better decision-making protocols. Admittedly, Steve Jobs had a legendary stubborn streak, but his death can be used as the starting point for important conversations on patient empowerment.
    The alternative treatments that Steve Jobs pursued could have been part of his conversation with his medical providers. There is no doubt that Steve Jobs was an intelligent individual, but a more moderated exploration of medical treatments should have occurred. In other cases like his, patient empowerment, involving patient access to medical records, can have a very helpful effect. Patients could connect with each other through secure forums for information sharing in order to make better medical decisions. Perhaps consulting with other patients pursuing alternative medical treatments or gaining full access to his medical history would have proved helpful. Perhaps Steve Jobs decided to forgo the initial surgery altogether because his medical providers were not informed about alternative treatments. Connecting with patients pursuing these treatments would have certainly been helpful and point to the need to empowering patients in this way. Ultimately, patients should be able to use the information they glean from each other in the discussions they have with their physicians in order to formulate the best method of treatment.

  8. Katharine Yang

    December 12, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    With all the rising technological advances and the greater success rates of surgeries over the past few decades, I was thoroughly surprised that Steve Jobs decided to take the alternative medicine road for as serious a disease as pancreatic cancer.

    However, after looking it up, his form of cancer is certainly a more rare form, and surgeries for pancreatic cancer are higher-risk than normal, and can have a lengthy recovery process. His choice to choose alternative medicine and palliative care was perhaps his decision that enjoying the remaining years of his life was better than undergoing surgery and miserable recovery, which in the end, still doesn’t have a high chance of saving him.

    Nonetheless, the surgery could definitely have saved him, and that is where the concern is. Jobs’ loss of hope in modern medicine is perhaps shaped by the way medicine has been portrayed by social media through complaints by other patients and aggravation in patient narratives. His case could have certainly been different from cases of other patients, but he did not want to take the risk of going through that suffering.

    About “thinking different,” I don’t believe Steve Jobs chose alternative medicine simply to think differently from the crowd–he must have had stronger reasons. There is no indication that he even felt alternative medicine would cure him, but perhaps it would help him live out the rest of his life in the happiest way. But in context of thinking differently, social media also plays a huge role in shaping what is “mainstream” and what is “different.” Hardly anyone discusses alternative medicine practices on medical forums and most physicians in medical schools reject it and do not want to spend time conducting research on it.

    In the end, Jobs’ decision was part of his patient narrative, and without hearing the whole story, there is no way we can understand all the factors going behind his decision.

  9. Peter Cabeceiras

    December 12, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    Alternative medicine and conventional medicine both have their own distinct techniques for treating cancer. However; considering how patients who have the same type of cancer can react to treatments, and the cancer itself, in radically different ways, it isn’t justified to attribute someone’s death or survival to either alternative or conventional medicine. Cancer is a personalized disease that turns someone’s genome against them. I think that the future of medicine will be based in genomics. Personalized medicine could be able to pinpoint the genes that have a greater tendency to promote carcinogenesis, or any disease, and craft minimally invasive treatments specifically for those trouble genes. Even infants who get their genomes sequenced can have their future health history presented to their parents in the form of probabilities.

    People who choose their own treatments will invariably choose not to undergo the other options. This may frustrate some professionals because going against their medical advice is akin to not letting them do their job. Although Steve Jobs was not a medical professional, he was well aware of his options, and he had more than enough resources to research treatments until he finally made up his mind. In this information era, the internet can connect and inform anyone who has a question and an internet connection. Health information has decentralized drastically because of this, so the professionals in alternative and conventional medicine do not possess as much power over it as they once did. An era of e-patients is upon us. People who want to manage their own health more independently are fueled by the internet and smart technology. In most cases, the more educated patient ends up managing their health better than the one who blindly receives advice.

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