Fortune's cover story: Steve Jobs hid cancer for nine months

From October 2003 through July 2004, Steve Jobs hid the fact that he'd been diagnosed with a form of pancreatic cancer, according to a profile of Jobs in an upcoming issue of Fortune, now posted online. A serious charge: Jobs should have promptly disclosed his health scare to Apple shareholders, since he seems practically irreplaceable as Apple's CEO. (Only now is he admitting to thinking about a successor.) But Jobs's cancer scare is old news to most readers. Why is Fortune bringing it up now?

The author, Peter Elkind, has long been rumored to be working on a damning profile of Jobs, centering on backdated stock options. That Fortune is now leading off its story with Jobs's cancer, not the options scandal, tells us what happened to that story: Elkind couldn't get the goods. This is a cover story in more sense than one. An excerpt, courtesy of Fortune:

THE TROUBLE WITH STEVE

In October 2003, as the computer world buzzed about what cool new gadget he would introduce next, CEO Steve Jobs—then presiding over the most dramatic corporate turnaround in the history of Silicon Valley—found himself confronting a life-and-death decision.

During a routine abdominal scan, doctors had discovered a tumor growing in his pancreas. While a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is often tantamount to a swiftly executed death sentence, a biopsy revealed that Jobs had a rare—and treatable—form of the disease. If the tumor were surgically removed, Jobs' prognosis would be promising: The vast majority of those who underwent the operation survived at least ten years.

Yet to the horror of the tiny circle of intimates in whom he'd confided, Jobs was considering not having the surgery at all. A Buddhist and vegetarian, the Apple CEO was skeptical of mainstream medicine. Jobs decided to employ alternative methods to treat his pancreatic cancer, hoping to avoid the operation through a special diet—a course of action that hasn't been disclosed until now.

For nine months Jobs pursued this approach, as Apple's board of directors and executive team secretly agonized over the situation—and whether the company needed to disclose anything about its CEO's health to investors. Jobs, after all, was widely viewed as Apple's irreplaceable leader, personally responsible for everything from the creation of the iPod to the selection of the chief in the company cafeteria. News of his illness, especially with an uncertain outcome, would surely send the company's stock reeling. The board decided to say nothing, after seeking advice on its obligations from two outside lawyers, who agreed it could remain silent.

In the end, Jobs had the surgery, on Saturday, July 31, 2004, at Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto, near his home. The revelation of his brush with death remained—like everything involving Jobs and Apple—a tightly controlled affair. In fact, nary a word got out until Jobs' tumor had been removed. The next day, in an upbeat e-mail to employees later released to the press, he announced that he had faced a life-threatening illness and was "cured." Jobs assured everyone that he'd be back on the job in September. When trading resumed a day after the announcement, Apple shares fell just 2.4%.

Apple entertained no further questions about Jobs' health, citing the CEO's need for privacy. No one learned just how long Jobs had been sick—or that he had contemplated not having the surgery at all. "It was very traumatic for all of us," recalls one of those in whom Jobs confided, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the topic's sensitivity. "We all really care about Steve, and it was a serious risk for the company as well. It was a very emotional and very difficult time. This was one page in the adventure."