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In July 2015, doctors diagnosed Nicole Matis with stage IV breast cancer, telling her the disease was so far advanced, she had no shot of eradicating it. She said the best they offered was to “treat the symptoms until (they) couldn’t treat them anymore.”
But in January, Matis’s oncologist found no evidence of active cancer cells. Nine months later she remains cancer-free.
Matis had defied the odds. And on Wednesday, she told members of the Mississippi Senate committee on health and public welfare that she credits her recovery to naturopathic medicine, which she received along with traditional chemotherapy. She said the naturopathic medicine improved her overall health during the rigorous chemotherapy treatments.
“Nurses were constantly amazed at how well I looked and felt (during chemotherapy). I never felt sick or lost my hair. I had little to no side effects, and I attribute that to naturopathic medicine,” Matis said.
Matis was joined at the Capitol by two naturopathic doctors, one who is licensed in Arizona and the other in Oklahoma. Together they’re pushing for legislation that would legalize the practice of naturopathic medicine in Mississippi. Currently, only 17 states offer licensing for naturopathic doctors.
The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians says the practice emphasizes prevention and treatment with herbal and vitamin remedies, using both traditional and mothern methods.
But Dr. Lee Voulters, president of the Mississippi Medical Association, said that compared with traditional medicine, the field of naturopathic medicine is still relatively unvetted, and patients should approach these treatments with skepticism.
“Look, this is fringe medicine, and lots of people say it’s beneficial to them, and I understand that,” Voulters said. “But (traditional medicine has) very strict guidelines and training programs, and everything is very strictly monitored. And I’m not sure how strictly monitored the naturopathic field is and what’s required of it.”
But naturopathic medicine has something many issues in Mississippi don’t — bipartisan support. Both Sen. John Hohrn (D-Jackson) and Sen. Josh Harkins (R-Flowood) have come out as proponents of a bill to license naturopathic doctors.
“I think it’s about having every medical option available to our citizens that’s safe and effective,” Harkins said. “Who can be against that?”
“I’ve always leaned toward an integrated approach in healthcare,” Horhn said. “And I think the stars seemed to be lining up on the Senate side for some serious consideration.”
Just six months ago, the stars were not aligned. A similar bill sponsored by Harkins during the last legislative session stalled on the Senate floor. Horhn said it met resistance because it’s a different approach to medicine from what most people in Mississippi are used to.
“We tend to be focused on symptoms. This is more about prevention. So it’s a whole new way of looking at health care in Mississippi,” Horhn said.
Ron Matis, Nicole’s husband, said that the bill’s progress was also hampered because it was introduced late in the legislative session.
“It was introduced later in February so there wasn’t a lot of time to do the sort of education you need to do (among members of the legislature),” Matis said.
Ron Matis, more than most civilians, knows how to get a bill through the legislature. During the last session he was one of the main advocates of a House Bill 1523. The “religious freedom” law garnered national headlines and a fight in federal court after opponents said it discriminated against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Mississippians.
The bill sailed through the House and Senate with almost unanimous Republican support. Matis, who is political director for the United Pentecostal Church of Mississippi, spent months lobbying several key legislators to make sure this happened.
“One of the things that I’ve learned is that I’ve had the privilege of building relationships with a lot of folks who serve in the legislature … and I think the biggest thing is making sure that everyone is on the same page and everyone understands the benefits of this bill and the purpose of this bill … which is to make sure Mississippians have balanced integrative care that gives them options,” Matis said.
Matis, who accompanied his wife to the Capitol on Wednesday, said he is as passionate about Mississippians’ right to naturopathic medicine as he is about protecting their religious beliefs. And Harkins said this is likely to help the cause.
“Anybody that’s an effective communicator and can share their experience of how it changed their life is someone you definitely want on your side,” Harkins said.
For the Matises, who have a five-year-old son, that experience was both financially and physically draining.
Because naturopathic doctors aren’t licensed to practice in Mississippi — or any state in the Southeast — Nicole Matis used a naturopathic doctor based in Arizona before flying to a small town in Switzerland, where she received both traditional chemotherapy and naturopathic therapies over five weeks last year. She continued both treatments back in Mississippi, using Skype to communicate with her naturopathic doctor, Sharon Stills.
If naturopathic medicine becomes legal in Mississippi, the Matises said they have plans to open a clinic in the state, together with Stills. The clinic would staff both traditional doctors and naturopathic doctors, who Stills said use predominantly vitamins and herbal regimens.
“The real purpose is not to replace traditional medicine. It’s not either/or,” Ron Matis said. “The real purpose is giving patients an opportunity to have a naturopathic doctor focus on the broader issues of their health. Mississippians deserve an option. To me that’s what this is about.”
For proponents of naturopathic medicine, licensing the practice would also open the door to insurance coverage. Ron Matis estimated that his wife’s treatment in Switzerland cost over $5,000 a week, and her current vitamin and herbal regimen costs between $300 and $500 a month.
And while some people may see prices like these as a reason to license naturopathic doctors, others argue that patients aren’t getting what they pay for. Many of these treatments haven’t withstood the rigorous clinical trials required for even simple traditional medical treatments. And while naturopathic medical school is a four-year program, like traditional medical school, traditional doctors are required to do a minimum three-year residency afterwards. No similar training is required for naturopathic doctors.
Licensing any form of medicine is a complex process. The bill last session would have required the establishment of a separate board to license naturopathic doctors. But Voulters said any medical practice in the state should fall under the Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure.
“(Naturopathic doctors) seem to rely on traditional medicine for the majority of the things they treat, and I think that’s a good thing,” Voulters said. “As long as it doesn’t get in the way of a traditional medical treatment and the patient feels its beneficial, and they’re being monitored by the state medical licensing board, I have no problem with it.”
Harkins agreed that the process of licensing could be tricky, given that it is all uncharted territory in the state. But he said establishing safe protocols is a priority.
“You want to make sure that whatever you’re licensing is safe. So how do you provide that oversight of certain types of healthcare? … And who has the expertise to know whether these people are operating on a level that’s deemed safe, that’s reliable and that’s not taking advantage of folks or not properly performing procedures?” Harkins said. “I want to make sure we focus on the health and the welfare of people.”