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Question Authority

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There are lessons to be learned from any tragedy – including the recent death of Steve Jobs. KUNC commentator Dr. Marc Ringel has more.

Journalists and investors speculated for years about the health of Steve Jobs, the legendary co-founder of Apple Computer.  Large swings in the stock’s value were sometimes based on little more than how gaunt the CEO looked from event to event.

Eventually it came out that Jobs had pancreatic cancer. In light of this terrible disease his longevity seemed well nigh miraculous.  One in five patients with the affliction survives a year, only one in twenty-five for five years.  Steve not only lived seven years past receiving the bad news, but during this period he brought us the iPod, iPhone and the iPad.

As information comes to light about Jobs’ medical case it makes more sense.  It turns out he did not have adenocarcinoma, which accounts for 95% of malignancies of the pancreas and for the horrible prognosis.  Steve had an uncommon form of pancreatic cancer called a neuroendocrine tumor (NET).  These tumors, which arise from a different type of pancreas cell than adenocarcinomas do, have a much better outlook.  Treated early, nearly every patient with NET lives at least ten years.

So why did Steve Jobs die only seven years after being diagnosed?  Unquestionably this multi-billionaire ultra-techie had full access to all the best that American medicine has to offer.  But it seems he didn’t take advantage of it.  Not until it was too late.

Apple Computer was launched in 1976 in Cupertino, California, near the south end of San Francisco Bay.  Jobs and his business partner, Steve Wozniak, were college dropouts, long haired inheritors of the 1960s American counterculture whose epicenter was in the Bay area.  Even though Steve eventually cut his hair and changed his look from hippie to casual preppie, the corporation he built has continued to the present day to define itself as a sort of anti-establishment game-changer.

“Question Authority” is one of my favorite slogans from back in the day when Jobs, Woz and I were growing up. For my generation, a doctor’s authority is as open to questioning as any other adult’s.  Doctors will tell you that we baby boomers pepper them with more questions than does any other cohort.

Add to this skepticism a dose of new age back-to-nature thinking and you’ve got a predisposition to embrace alternative medicine.

As best I can piece together the story, Steve delayed standard medical treatment of his cancer for about two years in favor of non-conventional therapies, which didn’t work.  By the time he took advantage of scientifically proven methods it was too late for a cure.

I do not mean this commentary to be a diatribe against people who don’t choose for themselves the sort of science-based practice that I learned in medical school.  Science is far from the whole answer to most questions, especially when it comes to healing.

How do you know then when to do just what the doctor ordered and when to look elsewhere for solutions to your health problems?

If you have a serious illness, like cancer, and if there is a well-tested standard medical treatment, just do it.  The stakes are simply too high to place your bets on anything else.  You might supplement your medical regimen with alternative therapy that could help with symptoms or side effects, once you assure yourself that the standard and alternative therapies don’t interfere with each other.

If your health problem is not a life-or-death issue or if there isn’t a well-tested medical treatment, some sort of non-traditional approach may indeed be best for you, as primary therapy or as an adjunct.

Inform yourself as well as you can about any treatment you choose.  The bumper-sticker wisdom that is true for doctors, dentists and psychologists applies at least as well to acupuncturists, herbalists and faith healers.

“Question Authority.”

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