Healthcare News & Insights

Did alternative medicine doom Steve Jobs?

After the death of the tech legend from a cancer with a high survival rate, some experts are asking whether his dalliances with alternative therapies and treatments was more of a hindrance than a help.  There’s no question that the death of someone as iconic as Steve Jobs is going to be a hot topic of conversation.

But in his case, his intense need for privacy coupled with his known embrace of non-conventional treatments is leading many people to use his death to perpetuate their own ideas about health care: Alternative medicine advocates claim his health only took a severe downturn once he started conventional treatments, while some medical experts claim that his delay of surgical intervention may be what eventually did him in.

Dr. David Gorski, an oncologist and editor at Science-Based Medicine, looked at both sides of the issue — and his conclusions are somewhat surprising.

First off, here’s what we do — and don’t — know about Jobs’ health and treatment plan:

  • Jobs was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003, after an abdominal CT scan found a tumor. The reason for the CT isn’t known, but it’s not a routine test for someone of Jobs’ apparent health at that time and may indicate that he was having GI symptoms which may or may not have been related to the cancer.
  • Jobs was diagnosed with a much rarer and less aggressive neuroendocrine tumor. The more common form of pancreatic cancer, adenocarcinoma, kills most patients within a year.
  • Jobs’ tumor was an insulinoma, which secretes insulin and can lead to insulin shock.
  • Immediately after diagnosis, Jobs opted to focus on diet and alternative remedies such as acupuncture. After nine months, he had a Whipple procedure performed and for the next few years appeared to be healthy.
  • Jobs also received an experimental, but scientifically sound hormone-based radiation therapy in Switzerland.
  • By 2009, Jobs’ health had taken a turn for the worse and he received a liver transplant, presumably due to a recurrence of the insulinoma. The liver transplant has been criticized by some health professionals as inappropriate care for someone with a metastasizing tumor.

Many advocates of conventional medicine look at those facts and say it’s a no-brainer that the delay in treatment doomed Jobs in the long-term.

But Gorski makes a strong case that the relatively fast progression of the disease indicates that Jobs had an unusually aggressive form of the cancer. And given its rarity — and the dearth of solid double-blind treatment studies because of that rarity — Jobs and his doctors didn’t have a clear picture of what the “best” course of treatment was.

While in hindsight, Jobs’ delay of the Whipple procedure and liver transplant may have allowed the cancer to spread further, with the information his doctors appear to have had at the time, both options had solid reasoning behind them.

In the end, Gorski says the real lesson of Steve Jobs’ medical treatment may be that, in the end, there’s still little medicine can do to fight biology.

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  1. Alice Frick says:

    My mom was diagnosed with Pacreatic Cancer on August 8, 2011 and passed away 9 days later. Those 9 days were consumed with what treatment options she should have. She had stage IV and of course looking back, nothing could have saved her. Her symptoms presented as rib pain and upper GI discomfort. We had no idea, this monster was growing insided of her for the 4 months previous to her diagnosis as she went from Dr to Dr to get relief. Bottom line, there is no cure. I feel blessed that my mom didn’t have to suffer thru chemo and all the other suggested treatments or watching her waste away. I know she is at peace and she is not suffering anymore. It is a horrible disease and maybe with Steve’s death, more money will be devoted to this beast and a cure may be found so that no one or their families have to suffer such a horrific ordeal.


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