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Shots - Health Blog

Despite His Public Prominence, Jobs Waged Health Battle Privately

Originally published on Tue July 31, 2012 10:36 am

Even now, after Steve Jobs' death, there's more we don't know about his health problems than we do know.

In a Stanford commencement speech in 2005, Jobs talked about the inevitability of death, and, in rare personal detail, about how he dealt with his cancer diagnosis.

Doctors found a tumor on his pancreas during a scan. They first thought it was the worst sort that would likely claim his life in a few months. But his prognosis improved after a biopsy, as Jobs recounted:

[W]hen they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I'm fine now.

The doctors called it a neuroendocrine tumor of the pancreas, a label that encompasses a variety of rare tumors with a variety of outcomes. "If you have 50 patients, you have 50 different tumors with 50 different prognoses," Dr. Michaela Banck, a pancreatic cancer expert at the Mayo Clinic, told the Wall Street Journal Health Blog. Many of these cancers grow slowly and can be cured with surgery. But they're not understood all that well.

Jobs did better after the operation, but it also emerged that the tumor was found in 2003, many months before the 2004 surgery. That delay in treatment and disclosure helped fuel the speculation on just about every aspect of his health later on.

Within a few years, Jobs' health seemed to deteriorate. And an uptick of rumors during the summer of 2008 started to hurt Apple's stock. The company brushed off concerns about his gaunt appearance as the result of a "common bug." But investors stayed worried.

When New York Times business columnist Joe Nocera was working on a piece about the company's culture of secrecy around Jobs' health, the CEO himself called. Nocera honored a deal to keep Jobs' health details off the record, but he wrote about the conversation:

While his health problems amounted to a good deal more than "a common bug," they weren't life-threatening and he doesn't have a recurrence of cancer. After he hung up the phone, it occurred to me that I had just been handed, by Mr. Jobs himself, the very information he was refusing to share with the shareholders who have entrusted him with their money.

By January 2009, it was clear that things were much worse when Jobs took a medical leave for an undisclosed condition. Nocera weighed in again, writing:

The time has come for Apple's board to take control of this subject from Mr. Jobs and do the right thing by the company's investors. Tell us, once and for all, what is going on with Mr. Jobs's health.

In June, The Wall Street Journal reported he's had a liver transplant performed in Tennessee rather than California.

Early this year, he took another leave of absence to "focus on his health." He returned in March. But in August, he resigned as CEO, unable to do the job any longer. He died Wednesday. The details of his death weren't disclosed.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.