Stop blaming Steve Jobs for his death

The Apple founder postponed treatment to explore alternative medicine. That doesn't mean his choices killed him

Topics: Steve Jobs, Cancer,

Stop blaming Steve Jobs for his deathA woman holds an apple in front of a small memorial to Steve Jobs in San Francisco, California October 6, 2011. (Credit: Kimberly White / Reuters)

Hindsight is rarely 20/20. Instead, it has a terrible facility for illuminating all the mistakes made along the way, every wrong turn, each guess that should have gone seconded. It isn’t as kind with the well-played hands, and it almost never grants permission to say, Maybe that wasn’t so great, but it seemed the best choice at the time. Perhaps Steve Jobs would be alive today if he’d had surgery when his doctors first discovered a neuroendocrine tumor back in 2003, instead of spending nine months trying a battery of alternative treatments. Then again, maybe not.

Yet the rush to Monday-morning quarterback his healthcare choices has been on ever since the Apple founder died earlier this month. In a lengthy – and much circulated — post on Quora, Harvard research fellow Ramzi Amri flat-out declared that, “Given the circumstances, it seems sound to assume that Mr. Jobs’ choice for alternative medicine has eventually led to an unnecessarily early death.” And now, in a new biography, author Walter Isaacson says that Jobs’ odyssey of “fruit juices, acupuncture, herbal remedies and other treatments — some of which he found on the Internet” – exasperated his loved ones and left Jobs himself rueful. “He wanted to talk about it, how he regretted it,” Isaacson tells “60 Minutes” this weekend. “I think he felt he should have been operated on sooner.”

Jobs had a rare and relatively slow-growing form of pancreatic cancer, one for which early intervention could have made a radical difference. And if he later came to regret dragging his heels regarding conventional treatment, it’s unfortunate, especially because when he embraced a conventional treatment approach, he went at it with gusto. He later said his goal was to be the first “to outrun a cancer like this” or among the last “to die from it.”

Let me be clear – I’m a big fan of life-saving surgery. I have the scars on my head, my neck, my chest, my lungs and my thigh to prove it. One of my best friends practically whistles now when she walks, she’s had so much of her insides removed from her cancer operations. But I have a big problem with the all-too-common temptation to give a moral value to a person’s choices regarding his or her body, to assume that if someone takes a different path that he, as one headline about Jobs declared, “killed himself.”

You Might Also Like

This useless, unhelpful crap starts from the moment of diagnosis – did you smoke? Sunbathe? Put off those mammograms? It continues throughout illness, even long after the writing is on the wall. A week before my father-in-law’s death from stomach cancer last spring, a friend visited him in the hospice to tell him he could beat his disease and rally — a pep talk that left him heartbroken that maybe he hadn’t “tried hard enough.” And it lasts, if the Steve Jobs speculation is any indication, even after you’re six feet under, with finger-wagging stories that imply that if you die, it’s your own fault because of your dumb choices. But here are the facts we do know: a) Jobs had cancer and b) everyone, at some point, dies, even the many, many people who try both conventional Western medicine and complementary and alternative treatments.

Jobs lived eight years after his initial diagnosis. Anyone with experience of cancer will tell you that five is considered a relative triumph. And the notion that if we are not doing absolutely everything our doctors and our friends and our shamans tell us, we will commit the great error of not wringing the maximum amount of time out of life, well, that’s really a hell of a lot of pressure.

The survival instinct burns brightly, and most of us would probably say that we’re fortunate enough to want a long, healthy life. But how we go about making that happen varies considerably. The pressure to make the right choices, the wrenching doubts and fears of disappointing everybody: Aren’t these too much to weigh upon any of us? How much “if only” are we expected to bear? Mortality is grueling enough. But guilt-tripping is an entirely curable condition.

Mary Elizabeth Williams
Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>