Did Science Denial Kill Steve Jobs?October 7, 2011
When a man with a net worth of $7 billion dies after a long battle with pancreatic cancer, you assume that he succumbed to his disease in spite of the best medical intervention money can buy. In part, this is true. Steve Jobs underwent a surgery that rearranged his digestive organs in 2004 and a liver transplant in 2009.
But, sadly, proper medical treatment wasn’t his first course of action. After receiving his cancer diagnosis in 2003, Jobs delayed seeking conventional medical treatment for some nine months. Why? Apparently, Jobs had been taken in by peddlers of alternative medicine. A 2008 article from Fortune magazine reported:
While a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is often tantamount to a swiftly executed death sentence, a biopsy revealed that Jobs had a rare – and treatable – form of the disease. If the tumor were surgically removed, Jobs’ prognosis would be promising: The vast majority of those who underwent the operation survived at least ten years.
Yet to the horror of the tiny circle of intimates in whom he’d confided, Jobs was considering not having the surgery at all. A Buddhist and vegetarian, the Apple CEO was skeptical of mainstream medicine. Jobs decided to employ alternative methods to treat his pancreatic cancer, hoping to avoid the operation through a special diet – a course of action that hasn’t been disclosed until now.
Yesterday, Brian Dunning wondered aloud whether earlier medical intervention might have prolonged Jobs’ life. According to Dunning, life expectancy for this form of cancer depends on how quickly the tumor is removed:
The median survival is about a decade, but it depends on how soon it’s removed surgically. Steve caught his very early, and should have expected to survive much longer than a decade. Unfortunately Steve relied on a naturopathic diet instead of early surgery. There is no evidence that diet has any effect on islet cell carcinoma. As he dieted for nine months, the tumor progressed, and took him from the high end to the low end of the survival rate.
Jobs deserves credit for dumping the advice of the cancer-diet charlatans when it clearly wasn’t working. But one has to wonder whether giving the tumor an additional nine months to grow made a difference is his long-term health outcome.
It would be wrong to call Jobs a science denier. After all, he built an empire by staying on the cutting edge of computing technology. But when it came to the health sciences, for a brief but critical period of time he ignored the advice from the cutting edge of that field. He got conned into buying an abacus when he really needed a MacBook.
I am sad that Steve Jobs has died. I am even more saddened by the scores of unnecessary deaths that result from otherwise intelligent people eschewing clinically-proven medical treatment in favor of ineffective fad alternatives. As Michael Specter puts it (in what is possibly the best TED talk I’ve ever watched), “We hate Big Pharma. We hate big government. We don’t trust the man. … So we run away from it. And where do we run? We leap into the arms of Big Placebo.”
Do yourself a favor and watch the video. Spread it around. It might just save someone’s life.