A Woman’s Intuition

y all standard indications, Hazel Tookes was a perfectly healthy sixty-three-year-old. Her doctor told her so and medical tests confirmed it.

But Tookes knew otherwise. She could tell something was wrong with one of her breasts. And she was right: She had cancer.

That Tookes’ breast cancer was detected early and that her treatment was successful may be testaments nearly as much to medical science as to her strong sense of intuition, as well as the faith and support systems that helped her through the ordeal.

Such intangibles may seem insignificant, especially when compared to cancer screening technologies and drug regimens. But the medical community isn’t ignoring the other factors. And Tookes may owe her life to the fact that she didn’t, either.

It was fourteen years ago that Tookes noticed her left breast felt odd. “My breast just didn’t feel like the other one,” she says. “It wasn’t soft. It just felt different.”

She went to her doctor, who assured her nothing was wrong. He had nearly every reason to believe so: Tookes had already had a mammogram within the year and it showed no abnormalities, and she didn’t have a family history of breast cancer.

Still, Tookes pressed and got a second mammogram. “But nothing showed up,” she says.

But a visit to another doctor led to a biopsy, which ultimately resulted in a mastectomy of Tookes’ left breast—and a diagnosis of cancer.

Mammograms don’t always show cancer, especially types like hers that form behind the breast tissue, Tookes’ doctors explained. They told her the cancer had grown only about an inch when they found it, but that it was a fast-spreading kind. She was lucky, they said, that the cancer was detected in the early stages.

James A. Stewart, a professor of medicine and medical oncology at the University of Wisconsin Paul P. Carbone Comprehensive Cancer Center, says fifteen years ago, most breast cancer was detected when a patient, doctor or nurse found a lump during a physical exam. Today, mammography finds the majority of cancer, but it’s not foolproof. It’s likely that ten to fifteen percent of tumors don’t show up on a mammogram, he says.

For that reason, physical exams, mammograms and even a patient’s sense that something just isn’t right, all become important means for detecting disease.

“If you’re looking for breast cancer in any age patient, you use whatever tools you have,” Stewart says. “If you’re smart, you use the patient’s perception of her own breast tissue.”

After her mastectomy, Tookes moved quickly into treatment. Looking back, she says this was the worst part of her cancer ordeal. She’d undergo chemotherapy, spend four days feeling horribly sick, then go back for another round two weeks later.

“Just when I started to feel better, I had to go back in,” Tookes says. “It was something. There were days I didn’t know I was in the world.”

After nearly six months of chemotherapy, Tookes’ oncologist declared her healthy. And even more impressive, he told her he was surprised she was still living. In the years that followed, Tookes says her doctors would also find it unusual that she suffered no post-treatment pain or relapses, or that she’d be cancer free from 1992 until this day.

Tookes is adamant that her faith in God pulled her through her fight with cancer. Before her biopsy, she said a prayer.

“I asked God the night before to be with me,” she says. “When I went into the hospital, I wasn’t nervous at all.”

Throughout her treatment, Tookes also took comfort in knowing family—her husband and son in Madison, her mother and relatives in Arkansas—as well as friends and strangers at churches across the country were praying for her recovery.

“I had people praying for me all over—people I didn’t even know,” she says.

Tookes says she has never worried that the cancer would return. “When you go to God in prayer and ask Him to heal something, if you worry it will come back, you’re not trusting in the Lord,” she says.

The impact of attitude and faith on cancer is the subject of much recent research, UW’s Stewart says. No reliable data has been found to suggest such things affect the progression or recession of disease, he says. But research has shown that spirituality and a positive attitude can have impact on patients, particularly in serving as coping mechanisms.

“They’ll tolerate struggles better,” he says.

In the years that have followed since her brush with cancer, Tookes has tried not to dwell on the experience.

But she has shared her story with other women who are battling breast cancer. It’s partly because during her own treatment, she found it encouraging to hear from friends and others who were living with or had beaten the disease.

Now seventy-seven years old, Tookes sometimes visits breast cancer patients. She’s found that some women don’t want to talk about cancer. But those who are willing to discuss the disease often benefit from it, she says.

“Some people want to forget it,” she says. “But if you talk about it, you get it out of your system.”

Susan Heidrich, a professor in UW–Madison’s School of Nursing, agrees that sharing one’s story can be therapeutic for women who have had breast cancer. “For some people, that’s very beneficial. It’s very much a healing process. For some people, they don’t want to do it. They value their privacy and want to put that experience behind them.”

Yet hearing a survivor’s story can make women with breast cancer better patients, Stewart says. When they’ve learned from others’ experiences, they enter treatment armed with information and good questions to ask.

Stewart believes the breast cancer community has done a commendable job in creating a “sisterhood” of support for patients and survivors, and that sharing and hearing personal stories can be an important part of forming connections.

“I think it’s therapeutic, it’s comforting, it’s educational,” he says.

Tookes doesn’t hesitate to share her story—or her belief in the power of tapping into intuition, faith and support, and the importance of knowing oneself. She wants women to take care of themselves however they can.

“You have to know your body,” she says. “Cancer’s nothing to play with.”

Katie Vaughn is associate editor of Madison Magazine.