Apple's Steve Jobs Speaks Up About His Health, and Leaves a Lot Unsaid

Steve Jobs, in 2007 (left) and last year, says a hormone imbalance has affected his weight.
Steve Jobs, in 2007 (left) and last year, says a hormone imbalance has affected his weight. (AP)
By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Steve Jobs's hormones are out of whack. The Apple CEO and pancreatic-cancer survivor told everybody yesterday.

"A hormone imbalance . . . has been 'robbing' me of proteins my body needs," he said in a written statement. Doctors think this is what has been making him lose serious amounts of weight during the past year, he said, describing it as a nutritional problem. He said that this revelation was "more than I wanted to say," that he would remain in charge of the company and that he would say no more.

Apple stock rose on the news, as if it were his EKG, as if he had put the issue to rest at the expense of his privacy.

But "hormone imbalance" is such a vague description of the body's inner workings that it could encompass everyone from the menopausal to Barry Bonds. It was a revelation that didn't reveal anything. The man who helped create some of the greatest communication tools of the modern age chose to communicate the image of forthrightness rather than the thing itself.

"It's really very vague," says David Patterson, a general internist in the District who has treated complications from pancreatic cancer. "It could be multiple endocrine neoplasia syndrome, he could be saying there's another [tumor]. He could be saying he has a thyroid problem. . . . The statement just doesn't give me enough to hang my hat on."

Jobs, 53, made an announcement in 2004 that he'd undergone a surgical procedure for a rare type of pancreatic cancer, called an islet cell neuroendocrine tumor, that can be cured with early diagnosis. It is not the same as the far more common, and far more deadly, type of the disease.

That disclosure was clinically precise -- and enlightening -- for investors who closely associated Jobs's performance with the company's future, and who considered his health a public issue.

It is in stark contrast to yesterday's announcement, which could mean almost anything. There are five types of tumors associated with the type of cancer Jobs had in 2004. The first two tend to result in weight gain. The three others -- glucagonoma, somatostatinoma and VIPoma -- all include weight loss as a primary symptom.

That could be indicated here. It could be that the illness disclosed yesterday is not related to cancer. Jobs's open letter to the "Apple Community" doesn't include the word "cancer."

But, on another level, it was a textbook example of crisis communication for any corporation. It was reassuring and confident. It addressed the issue. It gave a timeline for remedy: late spring, he said, by the time he'd be able to regain the lost body mass. It left no doubt who was in charge: "I will continue as Apple's CEO during my recovery."

"He's walking a fine line here," says Scott A. Sobel, president of Media and Communications Strategies, a D.C. firm that often deals with high-profile clients. "There's a big difference between saying, off the cuff, 'Hey, I'm going to be fine,' and saying something that satisfies all the legal and ethical details that are required but that could still be seen as being misleading."

In publicly traded companies, Sobel adds, these little notes are "vetted by the legal department."

Steve Jobs: telling the people something but not telling them everything -- which is, of course, a means of communication itself.

Staff writer David Brown contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company