Kara Noyes dropped out of high school to battle bone cancer. Now she treats patients at Bastyr's integrative oncology research clinic.
Kara Noyes was a 14-year-old taking a dancing class with the San Francisco Ballet when she began noticing unusual pain and weakness in her body. She visited doctors and a physical therapist who told her the problem was in her head. One accused her of not doing her stretches. Then she visited a chiropractor who immediately ordered the imaging that revealed the cause: osteosarcoma, a cancerous growth on her sacrum.
Surgeons couldn’t remove the tumor without going through her spine and risking paralysis. So Noyes took the best available option: She dropped out of ninth grade to undergo a year of high-dosage chemotherapy and radiation. She stayed in the hospital for 10-day infusions. Nausea from the chemotherapy made it nearly impossible to eat. She lost 30 pounds from her already-trim body.
“I definitely lost my hair,” she says. “There are some cute pictures of me all bald. The worst parts were nausea, vomiting, pain, and just the psychological component of being isolated, being pulled out of high school, being different.”
Her mother sat with her through it all. Long interested in natural health and mind-body techniques, she taught Kara how to meditate. She introduced her to acupuncture and Chinese herbs. The pain grew tolerable. Synthetic marijuana cured the nausea and restored Kara's appetite.
She survived the treatments, and tests showed the tumor had become a harmless calcified bone mass. She returned to high school, graduated, then went on to college at University of California, Davis, with an eye toward medical school. She wanted to become a medical oncologist (MD) who could incorporate the things that helped her endure treatment: meditation, visualization techniques, Chinese herbs and acupuncture.
Through a friend of her mother’s, she learned about naturopathic medicine, which draws on both traditional medicine and modern conventional medicine. Then she learned that Bastyr University had recently opened an integrative cancer research clinic.
“I was ecstatic,” she says.
Noyes applied and enrolled in Bastyr's Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine program. In her third year she began working at the Bastyr Integrative Oncology Research Center (BIORC) on campus. That brought a new intensity to her clinical training. Because BIORC is a research clinic, patients are enrolled in a five-year outcomes study, and every clinician’s notes become official research data.
“BIORC attracts students who really have a passion for oncology and who can handle the intensity,” says Barbara Osborne, RN, the clinic’s manager. “Kara is such a great role model, especially for students starting out, when it can be quite scary.”
Last fall, BIORC medical director Leanna J. Standish, PhD, ND, LAc, FABNO, held a weekend gathering for student clinicians to talk together about death. She says Noyes provided a perspective that other healers — herself included — didn’t have.
“Kara could speak about what it’s like to be a 15-year-old having to face mortality,” Dr. Standish says. “She understands survivor guilt and all the complexities of being a kid and being most upset at how scared your parents are. It’s all really poignant to me.”
When she’s with patients, Noyes is cautious about bringing up her own story.
“I try to be cautious about it because I don’t want it to become about me, and I also don’t want my opinion to be overly influential,” she says. “It’s really important for patients to feel empowered to make their own decisions.”
Noyes still experiences nerve pain from her cancer treatment, for which she sees a naturopathic doctor (ND) and a neurologist. She also participates in a survivorship program at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. She would like her future practice to be about not just treatment but also survivorship — recognizing that challenges don’t stop once cancer is gone.
That point hit home for her as a teenager when she attended a summer camp for cancer survivors in California.
“When you go through treatment, you’re so sick that it’s very isolating,” she says. “On occasion I would see other kids when I was getting a blood transfusion, but other than that I didn’t know anyone like me. So being at a camp with people in treatment and survivors who understand, who I could talk to … it was amazing.”
Now she helps raise funds for Camp Goodtimes, a similar camp in Washington state. She also returned to dancing, joining the vintage chorus girls group Sister Kate in Seattle.
And she also co-founded the Student Integrative Oncology Society at Bastyr. As a fundraiser to attend a conference in Phoenix last year, the group made and sold Valentine’s Day truffles with antioxidant botanical ingredients (like green tea and turmeric). Noyes has also presented at conferences on BIORC colon and lung cancer results.
After graduating in June, she is considering residencies at integrative oncology centers or at Bastyr Center for Natural Health, the University's teaching clinic in Seattle. Her leadership has convinced Dr. Standish that BIORC needs its own residency program — for which Dr. Standish is seeking funding.
“Kara gets how to be with patients,” she says. “She’s driven, but she also has humility and perspective. She’s relaxed around patients, and it makes her a really good research scientist.”
Noyes would like to continue research in her career, both on tangible therapies such as botanical medicines, and on harder-to-measure qualities like a patient’s motivation to heal. In her time at BIORC, she’s found that healing is less about providing answers than helping patients find their own sources of strength.
“Research shows that having a passion and reason for living can improve outcomes dramatically,” she says. “I find that naturopathic medicine is a great way to do that, because we have so many different ways to inspire people to find their reason for getting better.”
Learn more about Bastyr’s naturopathic medicine program and research institute.