"Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish"

Last Updated: November 13, 2016

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. […] Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

These were the words Mr. Steve Jobs, the late Apple co-founder, used to conclude his commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005. At the time, he had already undergone surgery for his neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer, and stated surgery had saved his life.

What he didn't say, though was that for about 9 months after he was diagnosed with this tumor, he chose to ignore the advice of his physicians and friends, and refused surgery. Instead, he tried a variety of questionable alternative treatments.


On Steve Jobs' Cancer Treatments

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How could a highly intelligent man like Steve Jobs, who revolutionized the computer and music industry, make such a poor decision?

I don't think Steve Jobs was stupid when he put off his surgery. And I don't think he was in complete denial either. After all, he was a highly intelligent man, and he had the advice of his physicians, as well as of many friends, and even his family, who all encouraged him strongly to go for surgery.

Before attempting to provide some answers, let me state that I truly admire Steve Jobs as a creative genius and as an entrepreneur. I also want to make clear that I am not attempting here to pass judgment on his choices in relation to his pancreatic cancer. Nor am I privy to his personal medical records. All I know about his disease comes from his recently published biography by Walter Isaacson. I also realize that it might have been entirely possible the for the outcome to be the same even if he had had surgery right away, if he was "unlucky" enough to have the more aggressive type of islet cell pancreatic cancer. The reason I chose to write about his case is because I think it illustrates very well the way some people go the wrong path when faced with a new, severe diagnosis.

Five Mistakes Steve Jobs Made About His Cancer

These mistakes frame a pattern of reaction and thought that I see repeating over and over again in patients fond of "natural" treatments when they are face with a new diagnosis that scares them.

1. He Tried "Magical Thinking"

There is good reason to believe that early on, after being diagnosed, Steve Jobs' refusal to go along with conventional, Western medicine treatments was fueled by his belief in magical healing. Buddhism and other oriental religions promote the idea that one can heal himself of any disease through the power of the mind. The mind is considered the origin of all illness, but healing also lies within the mind. As far as how one practically goes about securing healing, the options are quite varied, ranging from proactively engaging in acts of compassion, to meditative practices, and sometimes to plainly ignoring the physical sickness. Ignoring appears to have been Steve Jobs' favorite approach, at least according to his biographer, Walter Isaacson who said about his during a recent 60 minutes interview:

I think that he kind of felt that if you ignore something, if you don't want something to exist, you can have magical thinking…

Sadly, while this approach to healing may sound interesting, it has not worked in real life. Not for Steve Jobs, and not for a whole host of other anonymous believers in it.

2. Steve Jobs Didn't Want His Body To Be "Violated"

This was another reason he gave when asked by his biographer on why he postponed surgery for so long. He felt surgery was going to violate his body integrity.

I didn't want my body to be opened… I didn't want to be violated in that way.

This was different than just plain fear of going under the knife. The roots of this belief can also be easily traced to Buddhism. Buddhists look at surgery as a violent, primitive way of healing, and they approve of it only as a last resort, after other measures have failed (which is exactly what Steve Jobs did).

3. He Wanted to Try Natural Therapies Before Going For Conventional Treatments

I hear this a lot from some of my patients. They just feel Western medicine is relying too much on chemicals / drugs, ignoring natural factors of healing. To a degree, I sympathize with this statement - doctors are oftentimes too busy to find time to discuss the benefits of a healthy diet, regular exercise, stress control, spiritual health, etc. with their patients. Occasionally, doctors can be ignorant about some or all of these issues, and rely on drugs alone. But if you take the time to look into the standard of care for chronic conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, diabetes, etc., you will see that therapeutic lifestyle change (meaning healthy eating, exercise and so on) are featured preeminently in the prevention and treatment of all these chronic, lifestyle related diseases.

In the minds of many, natural treatments are supreme; pharmacological treatments are viewed as dangerous, chemical concoctions that are better avoided or reserved for a last resort.

I will write in more detail about the conflict between natural and chemical treatments soon; suffice it to say here that ALL things on this earth are chemical, whether we like it or not. Sencondly, natural treatments, while great for preventing disease, are not nearly as efficient once disease occurred. Relying on veganism, acupuncture, herbal remedies and other alternative/natural remedies to cure cancer is like hoping that driving a car with a leaking radiator no faster than the speed limit will fix the leak…

4. He Favored Alternative Medicine

There are no good quality studies documenting cure in islet cell pancreatic cancer with alternative medicine. This is not to say that ALL alternative medicine is worthless.

And this is where I don't get it. I see this happening again and again, and it always bothers me: people who are otherwise very intelligent, often leaders in their filed, go for unproven, "natural" therapies, instead of proven treatments that work. I see this a lot, for example, in patients with high blood pressure: "Let me try this supplement for a while, doc, and if it doesn't work, I'll try what you said.".

5. He Disregarded Medical Dogma

Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking.

Good advice for finding one's purpose in life, or breaking down the barriers of routine. But when it comes to treating disease, applying the results of scientifically proven, or evidence-based medicine, is a lot wiser than doing your own thing.

We live in an age where it is no longer practical, or even possible, to break new ground at each turn we take in our life. We have to rely on other people's thoughts and ideas all the time. Just think about it: would you rather go into the lab and spend countless hours reinventing the light bulb, or flip the switch and turn on the lights at night. This is a rather extreme example, I admit, but developing the common sense to know when it is better to ignore dogmas and when it's appropriate to embrace them is what being wise is all about.

Dr. Gily Ionescu MS, MD.

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