The temperature hovered around freezing March 13 in Cable, Wisc. – balmy by northern Wisconsin standards.
Trudging through the snow with snowshoes on the bottoms of her feet, Amber Tookey covered 10 kilometers in 44 minutes, 18 seconds. The 36-year-old from Boise crossed the finish line 11th overall – third among all women – at the 2022 USSSA Snowshoe National Championships.
Running a 10K can be challenging enough on a body, but in snow? That takes some serious endurance.But making Tookey’s performance even more impressive is the fact she’s been fighting leukemia for more than two years and was 14 months removed from a bone marrow transplant.
“It’s truly amazing,” said St. Luke’s oncologist Dr. Travis Williams. “Once you know her, it’s not surprising, but a transplant can often be debilitating. The fact she’s competing nationally in an incredibly rigorous sport … just phenomenal.”
A longtime runner, Tookey also found a way to keep running competitively in the winter after finding out about some snowshoe runners at Bogus Basin a few years ago. With her performance at nationals, she has qualified for the world championships.
It’s hard to fathom how far she has come not just in the sport, but also considering not long after her very first race, she was diagnosed with leukemia, on Nov. 4, 2019.
“I got fourth in that first race, but I didn’t know at the time the cancer was manifesting in my body,” Tookey said. “I ran in a few races that summer, but my times were getting worse, I felt more and more worn out, I didn’t know what it was until I went to get checked out. And that’s when I met Travis.”
Tookey had chronic myelogenous leukemia. She was put on two chemotherapy drugs over the next few months, but they were not as successful as hoped. Dr. Williams told her a bone marrow transplant was likely going to be the next, best option.
“At first, I had taken it well, it was manageable. I just had to take a pill; I wasn’t losing my hair,” Tookey said. “Then when he said that, it was like ‘oh crap, this just got real.’ I could’ve parked myself in denial, but I saw it as another challenge.”
Tookey found a match in her brother, but she had one important thing to do before she hunkered down and prepared for the transplant – she challenged Williams to a race.
It was just a mile on the track at Boise High School, but it represented so much: a runner showing she was ready to face her greatest competition alongside the doctor who was going to coach her through it.
“He was terrified I was going to waste on him, and I was terrified he was going to beat me,” Tookey said with a laugh.
So, how did it go?
“She kicked my butt, she just killed me,” Williams said. “Her hemoglobin count was half of mine and I got crushed.”
Today, Tookey can run a mile in about 6 minutes, 15 seconds. That day, in November 2020, it was about 7:15. Williams, who says he’s not much of a runner, still had a very respectable time of 7:45.
After her transplant on Jan. 4, 2021, Tookey spent about a month at St. Luke’s in downtown Boise. She requested to have a treadmill in her room – for walking, of course. A major key in her recovery, Tookey said, was “the staff, who I really grew to love.” With her husband, Chuck, the only visitor she could have, she connected with all who helped treat her.
“Everyone there had your best interests in mind,” Tookey said. “I remember once, it was the end of the day and Travis was going to go home, but he stopped by my room and said I should try to walk a little.“After a transplant, you need chemo, and it was just a hell week. You feel so sick, your hair is coming out. I think I threw a pillow at him, like ‘ugh, fine.’ But I did. It took maybe 40 minutes to cover a quarter of a mile. It sucked, but I was so thankful he went out of his way to motivate me to do it.”
That support system continued at home. She credits Chuck – “a saint” – for taking care of their daughter, Maddi, while she was in the hospital. He even turned their garage into an office so he could work from their house. And even if it wasn’t exactly advised, she was running competitively a month after leaving the hospital.
Tookey has maintained monthly visits to St. Luke’s Cancer Institute and continues to improve. She is not completely cancer-free, but is off immunosuppressants and taking nilotinib to help treat her condition.
“Having patients like Amber is what gets me up every day,” Dr. Williams said. “People that would go through a brick wall to get better. That trust patients put in you, it doesn’t happen anywhere else.”
Tookey hopes her St. Luke’s Cancer Institute visits can help motivate patients and medical staff alike.
“All these people know what I’ve been through, so it’s cool to tell them what I’ve done. You hope it lets people know you can get through it,” Tookey said. “It was a crazy experience, I was terrified, but that team at St. Luke’s got me through it. I’m forever thankful for them and for just being so human with me.”
It doesn’t get much more human than partaking in a patient’s hobby to help them enjoy themselves before a major procedure.
And Tookey, feeling strong, is ready for a rematch.“Every appointment, she asks when we’re going to race again,” Dr. Williams said.
Dave Southorn works in the Communications and Marketing department at St. Luke's.