Did alternative medicine kill Steve Jobs? This question has been circulating around the internet since the visionary co-founder of Apple died on October 5. Ramzi Amri, a research associate at Harvard Medical School who says he has been studying the type of cancer Jobs had for a year and a half, has argued that the type of pancreatic tumor Jobs had was “treatable” and that by initially relying on alternative medical treatments, he cut short his chances for survival. Others including Brian Dunning in a post entitled A Lesson in Treating Illness have decried Jobs’s decision to treat a terminal disease “with woo rather than with medicine.”
The publication tomorrow, October 24, of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs could provide more information. In a Sunday evening 60 Minutes interview, Isaacson has said that Jobs came to regret his initial decision to treat a neuroendocrine tumor in his pancreas that was detected in 2004 with an alternative diet instead of medically recommended surgery. The Apple CEO — “so used to swimming against the tide of popular opinion” — had been intrigued by Eastern mysticism as a young man and, according to an ABC News report, “believed in alternative herbal treatments.” An AP report also says that Jobs ate a vegan diet and used “acupuncture, herbal remedies and other treatments he found online, and even consulted a psychic.” He was also “influenced by a doctor who ran a clinic that advised juice fasts, bowel cleansings and other unproven approaches .. before finally having surgery in July 2004.”
Orac, a scientist who blogs at Respectful Insolence on ScienceBlogs, has long countered, and debunked, the ”woo” of alternative medical treatments with science. He has previously written about Jobs’s 2009 liver transplant. In weighing the available evidence about whether Jobs’s “flirtation” with alternative medicine might have killed him, Orac writes:
…it appears likely that Jobs did indeed decrease his chances of survival through his nine month sojourn into woo. On the other hand, it still remains very unclear by just how much he decreased his chances of survival. My best guesstimate is that, thanks to the indolent nature of functional insulinomas and lead time bias, it was probably only by a relatively small percentage. This leads me to point out that accepting that Jobs’ choice probably decreased somewhat his chances of of surving his cancer is a very different thing than concluding that “alternative medicine killed Steve Jobs.” The first statement is a nuanced assessment of probabilities; the latter statement is black-and-white thinking…
What is revealed from these accounts about Jobs’s initial treatment of his cancer with alternative remedies is that “even someone as brilliant as Steve Jobs can be prone to denial, and, yes, even magical thinking.” It’s possible that Jobs could have had what Orac terms a “medical reality distortion field that allowed him to come to think that he might be able to reverse his cancer with diet plus various ‘alternative” modalities.”‘
Others have used the term ”reality distortion field” in a “part joking, part derogatory, part admiring” sense to describe Jobs’s “combination of personal charisma, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, and persistence” that enabled him to persuade and convince anyone, from engineers to Wynton Marsalis, about Apple products. It might be possible that the very qualities that enabled Jobs to make Apple and its products what they are — to be the innovator the world will remember him as — also contributed to his demise. But with cancer, “biology is king and queen,” and there is only so much we humans — even visionaries like Jobs whose insights have radically changed our lives — can do to fight that biology.
De mortuis nil nisi bonum. “About the dead, say nothing except good.” What we can say is that, after those initial months using alternative treatments, Jobs sought out science-based treatments for his cancer and certainly the best available. It is commendable that, as Isaacson said on 60 Minutes, Jobs wanted to inform the world about his regret regarding his decision not to have been operated on sooner; about having made the wrong decision. How many public figures are willing to say that they have made a mistake?
Knowing this, I feel even more sorrow that Steve Jobs is gone.
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