Steve Jobs, who recently died from complications of pancreatic cancer, was a complicated guy. I’m writing this on my MacBook Pro, which is sitting next to my iPhone. I have used Macs since 1988, never owning a Windows machine. While I understand that he was a crusty sonofabitch, I have been a great admirer of his work and was saddened by his death.
I’ve been reading the Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson, which touches at times on his diet. Jobs was given to extreme vegan and vegetarian diets throughout his life, sometimes doing things like eating nothing but apples for a week. As has been very well publicized, he had gallstones, which caused his doctor to recommend a CT scan, which happened to detect pancreatic cancer at a very early stage. He then chose to ignore the advice of his physicians by refusing surgery (the only known treatment for his particular kind of cancer) for nine months.
“I really didn’t want them to open up my body, so I tried to see if a few other things would work,” he told me years later with a hint of regret. Specifically, he kept to a strict vegan diet, with large quantities of fresh carrot and fruit juices. To that regimen he added acupuncture, a variety of herbal remedies, and occasionally a few other treatments he found on the Internet or by consulting people around the country, including a psychic. For a while he was under the sway of a doctor who operated a natural healing clinic in southern California that stressed the use of organic herbs, juice fasts, frequent bowel cleansings, hydro-therapy, and the expression of all negative feelings.
Of course, a strict vegan diet and bowel cleansings is not what anyone who adheres to a paleo view of diet and health would recommend, especially for a life-threatening disease. (Jobs apparently never had much trouble expressing negative feelings, so that part of the therapy was probably a wash.) Someone of the paleo persuasion would say that the lack of sufficient nutrition and the excess of anti-nutrients would do nothing to help him and potentially cause harm. His dietary interventions in fact did not work and he eventually had the operation. At that point it was discovered that the cancer had spread to other tissues. We will never know whether those nine months made a difference; he had a slow type of cancer and the result might have been pretty much the same if he had made immediate arrangements for surgery. Still, the diet and the delay didn’t help.
One side effect of the operation would become a problem for Jobs because of his obsessive diets and the weird routines of purging and fasting that he had practiced since he was a teenager. Because the pancreas provides the enzymes that allow the stomach to digest food and absorb nutrients, removing part of the organ makes it hard to get enough protein. Patients are advised to make sure that they eat frequent meals and maintain a nutritious diet, with a wide variety of meat and fish proteins as well as full-fat milk products. Jobs had never done this, and he never would.
Beginning some time around then, whenever he appeared in public, he looked emaciated and malnourished. Apparently he did drop the strict vegan thing at some point and began eating some fish, but my guess is that his body was largely starved for nutrients while it tried and failed to protect itself from cancer. Jobs also went with Western medical science from that point on, including a liver transplant and other therapies recommended by his doctors. He lived longer than many people do with the disease. That might have had as much to do with his strong will as anything else.
I have no interest in castigating Jobs. He made the best decisions that he knew how to make, given who he was. It might be that no diet would have prevented the illness or affected it in any way.
And here’s thing: Imagine that instead of a vegetarian he had been paleo. Imagine that, upon being told of the cancer, he had decided to fight it using a cyclic ketogenic diet with intermittent fasting and avoidance of all grains, sugar, and processed food. And imagine that he died anyway. There is an alternate universe in which it went down that way; paleo might (might) help us resist cancer, but we all know that there is nothing certain about that. What would the press be saying about the cause of death?
Some bizarre diet he found on the internet, promulgated by weirdos who ignore established science and spurn the advice of doctors.
If paleo keeps growing, sooner or later some similar scenario will happen. Some celebrity known for eating paleo, or some paleo luminary, will get an awful disease. Idiots who think that one data point confirming their biases is better than any amount of hard science will conclude that paleo is the cause. We’ll read articles by “concerned” health officials, suggesting that perhaps paleo is not as healthy as all that, considering the amount of arterycloggingsaturatedfats it contains, not to mention the absence of hearthealthywholegrains. And that will be just as stupid as I would be if I concluded that Jobs’ weird vegan tendencies gave him cancer.
Goodbye Steve, and thanks for all the great stuff.