Steve Jobs and the Lure of Alternative Healing

What his treatment choices tell us about conventional medicine

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Ryan Anson / AFP / Getty Images

Steve Jobs in June 2008

Steve Jobs’ decision to treat his pancreatic cancer with a vegan diet, herbs, juices and acupuncture rather than the surgery his doctors urged, is being debated everywhere this week. And while it’s impossible for any outsider to judge whether Jobs’ faith in alternative medicine “likely shortened his life,” as the New York Daily News put it, or instead just improved the quality of a life that was already beyond saving, the story of how he managed his illness, as revealed in Walter Isaacson’s new biography, nonetheless raises important questions as to why an ever-expanding group of people now feel they can’t derive meaningful healing from conventional medicine.

Jobs, after all, is hardly alone in preferring to go his own path in pursuing unproven alternative treatments rather than submit to mainstream medical authority. Over the past couple of decades, “complementary and alternative medicine” (as non-conventional treatment is now called, with growing respect and recognition, by top research institutions like the National Institutes of Health), has grown into a nearly $34 billion industry, drawing in almost 40% of American consumers of health care each year. Among the sickest patients, with complicated and chronic health conditions, the numbers may well be even higher; at the Mayo Clinic, for example, fully 60 to 70% of new medical patients report having at some point also sought some form of alternative care.

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In many ways, it’s the failures of our current system of conventional care, Brent Bauer, the director of the complementary and integrative medicine program at the Mayo Clinic told me, that has made the search for alternatives so popular. For one thing, alternative practitioners — who rarely are reimbursed by health insurance — can afford to take the time to sit down and talk to their patients. “We’ve created this system where we want more and more access to physicians and we pay them less and less,” he said. “But with these alternative practices, with no third party constraining the time that can be spent, there’s a lot of hands-on time, and that’s been marginalized in lots of places. We feel better if someone takes an interest in us, talks to us, spends time with us. There’s enormous power there.”

Mainstream medicine, with its greatly increased use of high-tech diagnostic testing and medication has, despite its considerable progress and successes over the past few decades, he said, in some ways bred its own rejection. “We have a lot of unmet needs,” he said. “We kind of became a pill culture for a while in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. It looked like medical science was going to find a solution for everything. Then we saw in the eighties, nineties, we were living longer, but we also saw we were living with a lot of problems. We have to be on, wired 24/7. We’re really stressed … and we’re also finding pills don’t help us so there’s a natural backlash.”

We all, I think, have people around us who prefer to use expensive and questionable treatments — or engage in no treatment at all — rather than submit to what they perceive as the uncaring power of the medico-pharmaco-industrial complex. My father, for example, when told that he needed heart valve replacement surgery to stay alive, chose instead to take massive doses of fish oil — and he died.

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“It’s all about control,” an educational therapist I met at a conference last weekend told me of her own elderly mother, a retired psychologist, who regularly ends up in the emergency room with panic attacks. She won’t take anti-anxiety medication. “The loss of control for her would be more frightening than the panic attacks,” her daughter said. “So the ER just has to handle it.”

I currently get around 10 migraine headaches a month. I would have even more if I weren’t taking a daily preventive medicine. The preventive medicine would work better if I’d take it at the full dose I’ve been prescribed. But I won’t. Because, in many ways, like other preventive meds I’ve tried, it makes me feel not like myself.

In recent years, I’ve turned to herbs and supplements, acupuncture, homeopathy, yoga, and “energy work” (crystal chakra balancing) – the latter tried half as a joke, half with genuine hope. My short-lived faith in chakra work rested upon on an idea – shared by most alternative practices — that was very seductive to me: that my chronic pain stemmed not from a finite and medically-definable sort of condition, but from larger, vaguer, more systematic dysfunctions of modern living.

This idea is seductive to many people in our stressful, dysfunctional era. Indeed, just about any treatment today that offers control, pushback to an establishment that seems callous and remote, and the potential for logical-seeming explanations of complex, imperfectly understood problems, feels intrinsically healing.

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Why are people willing, in such large numbers, to potentially sacrifice their health, even their lives, in order to get, and keep, a sense of control over their bodies; why has conventional medicine become so alienating; why do alternative practitioners often exert such guru-like power to override common sense and reason; these are the questions we should now be asking in the wake of Steve Jobs’ untimely death.