Was Steve Jobs’ Death Hastened by “Magical Thinking”?

The question will never be answered with any certainty. But it’s worth thinking about, because many of us will eventually be required to make our own hard choices about what kind of treatment to get for a scary disease.

The known facts about Jobs are these. He had an unusual form of slow-growing cancer of the cells in the pancreas that make insulin. His kind of cancer is called an “insulinoma” or an islet cell cancer. When the cancer was first found in 2003, he put off surgery to cut it out for nine months, while he tried dietary treatments advocated by his friend and diet doctor Dean Ornish.

Ornish is a controversial physician with one foot in the camp of scientific medicine but the other dipping deep into the stream of unproven, “alternative” therapies. He advocates a vegan diet that most people find very difficult to adhere to.

Did the delay in surgery doom Jobs to an early death? The best answer seems to be, “Hard to say, but it didn’t help him any in the long run.” A blog called Science-Based Medicine, written by oncologist David Gorski, has some interesting thoughts. I enjoyed his piece, and especially his back-and-forth with a commenter on his site who identified himself as a medical oncologist. Here is Gorski’s bottom line about the allure of “magical thinking:”

Just eat this root, do these colon cleanses, let this healer manipulate your energy fields, and everything will be fine. No nasty invasive surgery that will permanently alter your body and how it functions. No poisonous chemotherapy. Unfortunately, reality doesn’t work this way, no matter how powerful the reality distortion field. Ultimately, reality intrudes, as it did for Jobs. When it did, when a followup scan apparently revealed that his insulinoma had grown, Jobs realized he had made a horrible mistake and tried to correct his course by undergoing surgery right away. It’s not clear whether his time in his self-created medical reality distortion field ultimately led to his demise or whether his fate was sealed when he was first diagnosed. Again, there’s just too much uncertainty ever to know for sure, and even if Jobs did decrease his odds of survival significantly it’s impossible to say whether the delay meant the difference between life and death in his specific case. What is clear is that no reality distortion field can long hold cancer at bay. Reality always eventually wins over magical thinking, no matter how much it might appear that magical thinking is winning at any given time.

My own take is this:

Cancer is scary, and even brilliant patients like Steve Jobs can become desperate, and tempted into trying an unorthodox treatment – remember laetrile? And although many cancer treatments have terrible side effects, at least they are based on science, not wishful thinking. Before you or a loved one decides to depart from what established medicine recognizes as the best practice for your diagnosis, learn about the science, not the magic, involved in those choices.

To help separate reality from fantasy, consult Quackwatch.com, a nonprofit resource that addresses health-related frauds, myths, fads and questionable therapies.

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