Would Conventional Medicine Have Killed Steve Jobs? Did it?

An article appeared in the October 12, 2011 internet edition of Medpage Today, a widely read online medical professional website entitled “Did Alternative Medicine Kill Steve Jobs?” by a Colorado-based gynecologist named Michelle Berman, MD.

Every once in a while, when one thinks that the partisans of medical orthodoxy have gone about as far as they can go in asserting the ridiculous to enhance their claims of scientific correctness and exclusive access to The Truth (capitals intended), they go and make a jump into the sublime, surprising us all. I am thus surprised by this article, although perhaps I shouldn't be.

In substance, “Did Alternative Medicine Kill Steve Jobs?” speculates that the delay between his diagnosis with pancreatic cancer and his undertaking conventional treatment (i.e., corrective surgery) was – coupled with his subsequent pursuit of alternate therapeutic modalities – likely what cost Jobs his life.

Nearly every single fact elaborated in Ms. Berman's article is incorrect, in whole or in part, but that matters little. Casual readers will read the caption “Did Alternative Medicine Kill Steve Jobs?” note that its author owns an MD and, well, you know what they say about attention spans.

Ms. Berman's article begins by asserting that “When they first discovered the tumor in his pancreas in October 2003, his [Job's] doctors told him an immediate operation was necessary, and could lead to a cure.” It is strongly implied that the late Mr. Jobs did not follow this advice, seeking out alternative care at that time. Problem: it isn't true. Jobs had surgery for pancreatic cancer in 2004, taking a leave of absence to recover. It is true that he delayed the surgery for several months, reasonably it seems to me. At the time Jobs's cancer was originally diagnosed in 2004, the five-year post-surgical survival rate was less than 20%. Pancreatic cancer – an especially aggressive, recurrent form of the disease - nearly always terminates fatally, and asserting that alternative medicine had anything to do with hastening his death is nothing but the sheerest and most ignorant of superstitious fabrication. It is far more reasonable to assert that alternative medicine likely had something to do with the fact that he survived for as long a period after surgery as he did.

Ms. Berman does not specify which alternative routes Mr. Jobs chose to take. Smartly, because whether or not the treatments were in any sense alternative is questionable as they consisted of a series of experimental hormone-delivered radiotherapy treatments at the University of Basel (Switzerland) medical center. When last I inquired, the University of Basel seemed to be an institution wholly grounded in and dedicated to the teaching and practice of conventional allopathic medicine, with not so much as a whiff of aromatherpists, herbal practitioners, ayurvedic vaidyas or Lemurian crystal healers prowling its corridors.

Ms. Berman's article goes on to decry the ongoing and “unsupported” use of nutritional protocols in combatting cancer: “although … 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” and cites an “expert” who “says he is unaware of any evidence that a special diet can be helpful." Berman summarizes her position: “To date, there is no evidence that indicates successful "alternative treatments" for Jobs' form of tumor.” Of course, what Ms. Berman means when she uses words like “evidence,” “alternative” and “successful” is left undefined.

The author goes on to cite several other “celebrities” whose demise, she argues, was hastened by their use of alternative therapies, including Steve McQueen and Farrah Fawcett or whose survival was brought about by a “conversion” from alternative to conventional treatments, such as was the case with performers Bret Hudson, and Adam Yauch. Of Yauch, Berman writes, “[He] 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. Yauch's introduction to Tibetan medicine came after converting from Judaism to Buddhism.

Let me see if I understand: is this supposed to be an argument against alternative medicine?

In any case, authoress Berman ignores the uncountable legions of cancer sufferers who
conventional medicine has failed. She ignores (wonder why?) the case of Suzanne Sommers, one celebrity who utilized an herbal protocol based on an extract of mistletoe (Viscum album) coupled with conventional surgery. Recently one PubMed abstract from a study cited mistletoe extract to be very effective in exterminating cancer cells. Other abstracts praised the similar effectiveness of the Meadow Mushroom (Agaricus blazei) and the Madagascar Periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) in dealing with some malignant neoplasia. The therapeutic impact of the bark of Taxus brevifolia (the Pacific Yew) and source of the drug Taxol is indisputable. A huge amount of quality research is being undertaken throughout South Asia on the anti-cancer properties of traditional Ayurvedic formulations, and most of that research is promising in the extreme. The already substantial evidence of nutrition's role in the prevention and treatment of various cancers is mounting and widely known, well-researched, and routinely ignored by the medical profession.

One is forced to wonder whether authoress Berman has ever in her life spoken to an herbalist, or a dietician or nutritionist to solicit their views of the effectivenss of the therapies they offer. But then, perhaps Ms. Berman does not know any herbalists, dieticians or nutritionists.

Finally, Ms. Berman informs us that Steve Jobs was a Buddhist, and thus was skeptical about mainstream medicine. The barely veiled implication is that had Steve Jobs been a practitioner of one of the monotheistic Abrahamic traditions, he undoubtedly would have put his unquestioning faith foursquare behind the guy wielding the scalpel. Berman tells us as much: “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 … could it be that Steve Jobs was so dedicated to the concept of 'think different' that he was unable to 'think clearly' until it was too late?

Bigoted, anecdotal, committed to “post hoc” rationalizing, and just plainly wrong on
every count. The biomedical cultism reflected in Michelle Berman's article is 'emblematic' of what holistic health practitioners, practitioners of complementary and alternative medicine, and their patients and clients must address daily in their ongoing struggle for access to freedom of choice and quality in healthcare.

Article provided by William Courson, BVSA, D. Ayur., an Ayurvedic Practitioner, faculty
member and the College Dean of Institutional Development at Sai Ayurvedic College & Ayurvedic Wellness Center.

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