How alternative medicine may have killed Steve Jobs

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,How alternative medicine may have killed Steve Jobs

 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 biographyHow alternative medicine may have killed Steve Jobswill 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.

Michele Berman is a pediatrician who blogs at Celebrity Diagnosis.

Submit a guest post and be heard on social media’s leading physician voice.

Comments are moderated before they are published. Please read the comment policy.

  • paul hasson

    i agree with the premise of the article whoolely, but to leave out Suzzanne Somers, who remains alive and a very vocal advocate of alternative therapies, leaves the writer to criticism for a selection bias in order to re-inforce her point 

  • Pamela Miles

    As you wrote, “that same stubbornness may have also lead to his demise.” So why the exploitive headline? 
    That someone as savvy as Jobs was skeptical about the conventional medical approach shows that there are deep holes in the safety and consistency of care. What about the 100,000+ people who go the conventional route and die each year of medical errors and pharmaceuticals used properly?

  • Tracy Krulik

    One thing I don’t understand about the Steve Jobs cancer debate is whether his doctors knew if the tumor had metastasized or not in 2003. I completely disagree with the assertion that weeks can make a difference treating neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer. “Years” is a better word. These tumors grow extremely slowly which is why those of us with the disease can live for decades with it. My guess is that the outcome would have been the same whether Steve Jobs did the surgery when he was first diagnosed or after waiting for 9 months. If his disease was so advanced that he didn’t live past a decade, my bet is that the primary tumor on his pancreas had already metastasized.

    Two weeks after the same type of tumor was found on my pancreas in 2007, my doctors had me undergo an “octreoscan.” While common scans like PET scans cannot pick up neuroendocrine tumors, the octreoscan can. We knew immediately that my primary tumor had spread to my liver and chest which meant that my disease was no longer curable — just like Steve Jobs. 

    Octreoscans were available in 2003. Did his doctors have him undergo one? If so, we’d know definitively whether the primary tumor had metastasized or not and how big the mets were as well. To me, this is a bigger issue than whether Steve Jobs tried to power up his body with holistic remedies. 

    Did his doctors know the full extent of the disease in 2003? They should have.

    • Tracy Krulik

      This article inspired me to write more about this issue:

  • Giridharan Nappanveettil

    What about all those deaths that are occuring in so called well maintained hospitals, by wrong medicine and excessive intervention, including mistakes while administering anesthesia. etc?. Dont take a lopsided view and blame other systems of medicine other than allopathy as messengers of death..In fact all systems has its merits and demerits, and every system has only one aim, that is to cure the patient..In this internet era, patients know what is best  for him and let him select what is good and safe for him…

  • Anonymous

    Isn’t life a series of “right” and “wrong” choices?  I don’t blame people, like Jobs, who are always thinking on the cutting edge, that there just “has to be something better out there” and rely on alternative medicine.  At one time, medicine itself depended on alternative treatments as it’s mainstay.  This is all about informed consent, which the medical community has come to honor, so why the questions and analysis?

  • Virginia Kelley

    Certainly nobody can answer this question, though I’m sure people who believe he could have gotten conventional treatment and survived wish he had done so.  Wish the article provided some statistics about treatments and survival rates for this diagnosis – since you don’t know stage at initial diagnosis, you could give us an array maybe of mean survival for stage/treatment — including “no treatment,” if known.  I would guess Jobs didn’t just impulsively make a choice, I would guess he found out and understood everything he could.

  • Lydia Thurton

    The title of this article is very ignorant. If he had chosen conventional medicine, and died would it have been conventional medicine that killed him? The cancer killed him. Pancreatic cancer has a very low 5 year survival rate as it is. I think he did well to live that long! Iatrogenic causes kill more people every year than alternative therapies ever have or will. 

  • Steven Reznick

    This was a bright man who heard many expert opinions and made a decision that those of us who are traditionally trained disagree with. Isn’t giving the patient the facts and explaining the risks and benefits and then telling the patient your beliefs all you can and should do? Mr. Jobs made an informed decision. Playing Monday morning QB and the ” what if” game so close to his demise and while his family is still grieving is inappropriate and insensitive. 

    • Anonymous

      So agree! Let’s not mention the numbers of people who were successful with Alternative methods, or the myriads that are not successful with conventional methods, or rather, let us DO look at them…and watch the prism sparkle and perspective change. “What if” thinking is not advised in Life. Perhaps it is equally inappropriate here. 

    • Andrew Lohbihler

      No it is not insensitive. Steve Jobs is a very public figure. He was ridicued for having been fired by Apple, but nevertheless said it was a GOOD thing to be fired. He admitted publically that he was NOT always right. Similarly his short life is a reminder to many people out there that choosing alternative medicine for his cancer was a STUPID thing to do, considering that early surgery was the BEST option by experienced and scientifically educated medical professionals. There is a truth out there, but it is not coming from the charlatans of “alternative medicine”.

  • Walter Scott

    I would never suggest someone battling cancer forego surgery, chemotherapy, or other treatment, but perhaps his reliance on alternative medicine lengthened his survival. 

  • DrBerman

    This story was written prior to the publication of Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Steve Jobs. Isaacson’s book and account of Jobs’ 8-year struggle with his cancer is entirely consistent with our description of the issues and decisions affecting the course of his disease. For an update and our review of the medical aspects of Jobs’ biography, see “Steve Jobs’ Cancer Timeline” at

  • Tracy Krulik

    Dr. Berman, 

    What I’m still not seeing in the timeline is whether his doctors performed other tests when they first found the primary tumor in 2003 to determine if the disease had spread. I see that they did a CT scan, but do we know if they also performed an octreoscan? It would show uptake that a CT scan might not see. (Not all PNETs show up on octreoscan, but I suspect his would given that he underwent octreotide-tagged radiation therapy later on.)

    When my primary tumor was found in 2007 we only saw attenuation on my pancreas, but a few weeks later I underwent an octreoscan, and we could see uptake not only on my pancreas but also in my liver and mediastinum. To this day my tumors are barely visible on CT (if at all) and are still visible on octreoscan.

    While I don’t believe one should ever pooh-pooh medical advice, I’m not convinced that Steve Jobs’ primary tumor had not already metastasized when it was first found. If his doctors did not perform an octreoscan we may never know. If it had already spread, waiting to remove the tumor might not have had any effect on his longevity.

    • Anonymous

      Tracy – thanks for your comments which are informative and educational. Our mission at Celebrity Diagnosis is to increase health literacy and medical knowledge using the dynamic, back-and-forth conversations that are the hallmark of social media. Thanks for engaging us in a constructive manner. It is entirely possible that Jobs’ tumor had already metastasized when it was discovered as an incidental finding via his CT in October 2003. A timely operation would have not only allowed removal of the tumor but also a visual inspection, manual palpation and possible biopsy of other tissues and organs adjacent to the tumor. We firmly believe that good old-fashioned physical examination is still important even though we have amazingly sophisticated imaging and molecular diagnostic technologies available today.

      • Tracy Krulik

        Thanks for responding. Some doctors who specialize in neuroendocrine cancer would recommend against pancreas surgery if the primary tumor has metastasized. The octreoscan would be the best tool to give the patient and doctor the best information on how to combat the disease. Perhaps in 2003 octreoscans weren’t readily available. I’d be surprised today if any doctor specializing in this disease would only use a CT or MRI.

        I greatly appreciate the work that you do. Patients need to make informed decisions. That’s one of the main reasons I write about neuroendocrine cancer. Steve Jobs has given us the opportunity to discuss this “rare” disease in open forums. My fear is that much of the information being disseminated is not completely accurate, because the majority in the medical community simply do not know much about neuroendocrine cancer. 

  • Kirk Holden

    My father had almost the same diagnosis and made the same decision with a difference – he would absolutely refuse to his death any surgery, chemo or radiation. Unless Jobs made this same decision up front and stuck to it I can see no reason to delay what he was going to do as a back-up plan. One life, one experiment.

  • Andrew Lohbihler

    Think different, be stupid and foolish.

  • Alice Robertson

    MD Andersen had a write up in PEOPLE magazine that says differently.  Steve Jobs prolonged his life by eating better and doing what was humanly possible.  His cancer prognosis was 23 months.  Look up Dr. James Yao who said, “This is a tough cancer.”   Pancreatic cancer is typically swift and lethal.  Some 80% of the roughly 40,000 patients diagnosed annually die within a year.  Jobs suffered from the much rarer form where tumors occur in hormone producing cells….about 600 cases a year (try getting research money on that rare a form of cancer).

    After his diagnosis he did do a special diet but eight or nine months later opted for the surgery.  This was in 2004.   He faced liver failure and had the transplant…..far from being the poster boy of conventional medicine refusal.

    I think you are going to need a much better example than Steve Jobs…who did what he thought best under the best counsel in the world….but the misinformation out there on alternative medicine and doctors trying to build a case that isn’t….well….that is of more concern that someone trying to renew their cells and improve their immune system.

  • Alice Robertson

    Just as an interesting side note TIME magazine this week shared that Steve Jobs had his entire genome and his cancer decoded in hopes of exposing the tumor’s genetic mutations and it is helpful for the doctors in choosing anticancer drugs…..but it is not helpful with pancreatic cancer.   I think this article needs other subjects who didn’t use conventional medicine first and then desperately tried alternative medicine….realizing Jobs was in a precarious situation….he was, basically, given a death sentence….but he was very optimistic about conventional treatment.

    A Harvard doctor wrote the same misinformation at this weekend.   Farrah Fawcett tried conventional medicine too.  My son was given a death sentence….he was seven years old…an astrocytoma….sent home to die.  My teen daughter battles cancer now and is on the verge of a third operation because it spread to her lymphs (a negligent doctor at Cleveland Clinic didn’t read her lab notes so the delay in treatment caused this, not alternative medicine…he was cited).   I know the desperation a patient feels.  Of course, we have a good testimony many doctors discourage….we prayed for months and months…..God performed a documented miracle…it’s on youtube…the neurologist at Cleveland Clinic shows the MRI with the tumor that had spread….then the MRI with the tumor completely gone.

    The bottom line is medicine is unique….it’s trial and error….doctors disagree with other doctors, but curiously treat themselves differently than patients, and get better care (they know how to manipulate the system…they understand it and maneuver through it better).  Dr. Groopman’s new book, Your Medical Mind…How to Decide What is Right for You is very good….but this article just seems to take an idea and then grab for fillers to make your point.  Alternative nor conventional medicine is the great utopia…..but doctors gotta get with the program:)

Most Popular