Jody Noé, ND (’95), MS, grew up learning Cherokee herbal medicine from her tribal elders, then worked to preserve this medicine through ethnobotanical research. Studying naturopathic medicine at Bastyr University let her combine her heritage with scientific training, setting her on a career practicing medicine.
Dr. Noé is an adjunct professor at the University of Bridgeport College of Naturopathic Medicine in Connecticut, where she founded the university's integrative oncology clinic. She is also helping create an integrated diabetes nutrition program with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. She spoke to us recently about her work.
How did you get started in cancer care?
I've been working with cancer patients since I was a student at Bastyr doing AIDS research with Leanna Standish, PhD, ND, LAc, FABNO. Before protease inhibitor drugs were around, we saw a lot of cancer in our AIDS patients. When I graduated in 1995, I opened a practice in Redmond, Washington, and planned to do midwifery and traditional naturopathic medicine. But the first two patients who walked in the door were cancer patients, and it just became what I felt I had to do.
You recently published the Textbook of Naturopathic Integrative Oncology. What makes integrative oncology distinctive?
Integrative really means a team approach. You're using many modalities to fight the disease, and instead of the doctor being in the middle of the plan, the patient is in the middle and everyone else works around them. You can use chemo-radio treatments targeted specifically for each type of cancer at the genetic level, and also use reiki, acupuncture, nutrition, massage, yoga or qigong to support the patient.
You can use naturopathic medicine both to target specific types of cancer cells and also to mitigate the side effects of conventional cancer treatments.
The naturopathic education is very well-suited to this, because it looks at the big picture. We need to be effective at the site of genetic mutation, but also effective in active cancer treatment, post-cancer treatment and survivorship strategies. It's not just helping the patient get through that treatment, but also anticipating survivorship issues that will come up 10 or 20 years later that naturopathic medicine can heal or even prevent.
The textbook was a huge endeavor that came out of decades of working with cancer. It's designed for medical students, but it can also be used by patients, general readers and students of other modalities.
One of the points of the book is to take the principles and tenets of naturopathic medicine and explain how they can work in an integrative oncology setting. That may help more NDs find spaces in integrative clinics, where they can be very effective.
Let's back up: How did you first decide to come to Bastyr?
I grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and San Jose, California, with grandmothers who used their own systems of natural healing. My father and his family are immigrants from Sicily, Italy, and my Italian grandmother always used herbal medicine to treat us kids when we were sick. My mom and her family are from South Carolina, and my grandmother used bits and pieces of what we called “old timey medicine” throughout my childhood. When I was in my 20s I began studying Cherokee medicine with my elders from the Eastern Band of Cherokee in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma.
Native American medicine is holistic in all aspects, and I was looking for a way to complement my traditional training with a more conventional degree. I went to Old Dominion University and studied pre-med as an undergraduate and ethnobotany as a graduate student, studying plant-medicine uses of the Cherokee nation. I was looking at conventional medical schools after that, but I knew I wouldn't be happy because they didn't have any nutrition courses and were not integrative. I read about Bastyr on microfiche, of all places — this was the mid '80s. I looked at its curriculum and I said, "This is what I want to do." It was just that clear.
How does Cherokee medicine compare to naturopathic medicine?
The concepts are basically the same. If you think about the precepts of naturopathic medicine – first do no harm, treat the cause, nature as the cure, and on — they dovetail with earth-based medicine like Cherokee medicine. The thing that connects them is the Spirit of medicine. We say we "practice" medicine, just like an artist or musician practices their art, getting better at it over time. There's a Spirit in the art of medicine.
I was taught by Cherokee elders in the East, who have all passed now, and from elders in Oklahoma. The first line of medicine starts with the women. If you don't feel well, you go home and a mother, grandmother, auntie or other female member of your family makes you tea. After that, you go up to the spiritual practices of the medicine priests. I've learned that from Croslin Smith, Spiritual Leader of the Cherokee Nation, and I'm happy to say he is still teaching me.
At the University of Bridgeport, I received a grant to create an herbarium that allows us to create a specimen repository, a high-tech plant library. Over my lifetime, I've been able to prove scientifically the herbal medicine I learned from my elders. And the science backs them up, right down to the molecule. Isn't that crazy?
You're also working with Native American tribal health services in Connecticut?
Yes, this year I'm helping the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation develop a new health services model, the physician home health care model. Diabetes is a leading killer of Native Americans and Alaskan Americans, and federal health services are looking for new ways to address this really horrible diabetes disparity. They believe medical nutrition may be the optimum way to address it, and that's something in which NDs have a lot of expertise. Through a federal grant, we've created an integrative physician team and are using simple naturopathic intervention strategies like fish oil, natural supplements and herbal remedies, along with education on nutrition and lifestyle changes. We are also looking to add traditional Native foods back into the diet and move away from the modern processed foods that were given to Natives as staples once they were all deported to a reservation system.
The broader program extends across the country, and it's pretty exciting to be the first naturopath hired in that system. We're talking to everyone in Indian Health Service about medical nutrition as a full therapy. We'll see what happens. If it's successful and it changes what happens to diabetes in Indian nation across this country, it's going to be … hallelujah. For a nation of peoples who have lived with such health disparities and morbidities, it's going to be a wonderful gift of longevity and quality of life.
Learn more about studying naturopathic medicine at Bastyr.