Eight years ago, Survivor fan Sunday Burquest sat on her couch with her family watching the latest season of CBS’s long-running reality competition franchise.
“We’ve watched Survivor from the beginning,” Burquest says. “Seventeen years as a family.”
Surrounded by her husband and four children, she blurted out a bold statement: “I’m going to be on that show someday.”
“My boys just laughed at me and joked that I wouldn’t last a day,” Burquest says.
But they had yet to witness their mother’s survival skills.
“Invasive Inductal Carcinoma”
That would all change on a Friday night in April 2012 when Burquest felt a lump under her bra strap. She decided to have it checked out by her regular doctor the following Monday morning, which led to biopsies and ultrasounds on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, April 11, 2012, Burquest received the phone call no one ever wants to get. “The nurse who called asked if I was driving,” Burquest said. “I knew that was a bad sign when she said that. She then told me, ‘You have invasive inductal carcinoma. Do you know what that means?’”
Burquest did know because it was the news she worst feared. She had breast cancer. Her caregiver response was to actually feel bad for the nurse who had to deliver the diagnosis and then to protect her children from the news until she had to undergo surgery. “I didn’t want to tell them.”
She made the decision to follow through with a six-day mission trip to Mexico between her diagnosis and her first surgery, a bilateral mastectomy, on May 1. While some people may have questioned her decision, she said the trip was a much-needed escape from the reality of her cancer diagnosis.
“I never knew there were so many decisions to be made,” Burquest says. “So many doctors. So many appointments. And every day I had to decide something and decide it quickly. It was overwhelming.”
Less than a month after she was diagnosed, Burquest had undergone a double mastectomy, a lymph node dissection, and reconstructive surgery. Following the flurry of activity and surgeries, Burquest – surrounded by a supportive family and community of friends – was all set to begin chemotherapy treatment.
From Cold-Capping to Radiation: Surviving the Extremes of Treatment
Burquest had done significant research and had decided to invest in cold cap therapy which means using ice caps on a patient’s head for a period before, during and after each chemotherapy treatment to preserve the patient’s hair. Cold cap therapy requires rental of the caps as well as the clinic’s participation in a cold cap therapy program because certain coolers and additional space are needed for the treatments.
She says that preserving her hair was important to her out of concern for her children because she had recently lost both her father and her father in law to cancer. “In their minds – based on what they saw— you get cancer, then you lose your hair, and then you die.”
Burquest discovered the week before she was scheduled to begin chemotherapy that the clinic she had been referred to for her treatments did not do cold cap therapy. Berquest had seen Minnesota Oncology’s Dr. Paul Zander on Good Morning America in a 2010 story on cold cap therapy (when it was still relatively new and not very well known) and gave Minnesota Oncology’s Minneapolis Clinic a call on a Friday. The scheduler worked with the Minneapolis clinic staff to allow Burquest to see Dr. Zander the following Monday, and she was able to begin chemotherapy treatments using her cold cap at the Minneapolis Clinic without any delays.
There she met chemotherapy nurse Jane Marostica. “Sunday had the best attitude in fighting her breast cancer,” Marostica says. “She was a busy working mother of four, and her treatment never seemed to keep her down. Her family support was tremendous and you could feel her love and faith every step of the way. As a youth pastor in her community, and not wanting to look ‘sick’, Sunday went through the rigors of ‘cold-capping’ which is a feat in itself. And she was able to keep her hair!”
Burquest says that her experience at Minnesota Oncology was supportive and positive. “The Minneapolis chemotherapy nurses were awesome,” she says. “Every single person from the front desk staff, the medical assistants, the lab staff, and the schedulers was nice and supportive and helpful. No one ever made you feel like you were bugging them or like you were a burden. I feel like they’re my friends. They never make you feel like you’re just a patient.”
Burquest and Marostica have maintained their friendship, and Burquest now goes to Minnesota Oncology’s newer WestHealth location in Plymouth – closer to her home in Otsego – for her follow-up appointments. “I am proud to have her as a patient,” Marostica says.
Burquest says that learning to accept help was a challenge. “I’m a pastor at a church," she explains. "I’ve helped plenty of people, but I’ve never been on the receiving end.”
Burquest began learning to accept help when her husband Jeff had emergency open-heart surgery the year prior to her diagnosis. That challenging time helped her, though, when her cancer treatments required her to lean on others. “My friends were super supportive,” she says. “They had T-shirts made and sold them to raise money. They had a silent auction and dinner benefit for me. “
“People brought meals for almost six weeks, drove my kids places, gave my kids Subway gift cards when I couldn’t get them a meal between practices,” Burquest remembers. “People came and cleaned the house, did the laundry. One woman sent me a beautiful handmade card every day for four months. It was unbelievable…all the support that I got.”
In early September of 2012, Burquest underwent her last chemotherapy treatment. She managed to muster up the energy to go see her son, who had just started his senior year at Osseo High School, play football. “When I came to the game that night, he was on the starting line,” she remembers with tears in her eyes. “He came out that night and surprised me by wearing pink cleats and pink gloves.”
“What am I Waiting For?”
After Burquest completed chemotherapy, she underwent 28 days of radiation and was declared cancer free. She continued on hormone therapy, however, and the side effects kept her from completely feeling like herself again. “I feel like the medications really messed with me. It was a couple of years of not really feeling like myself. I used to not be able to go bed if there was a dirty dish or anything in the washer. But it got to the point that I really didn’t care.” Marostica assured her that the fatigue was a side effect of the medication and that her energy would eventually return.
Despite feeling different, Burquest’s positive attitude translated into a desire to do something bold. She had survived breast cancer and was about to turn 45. Now that was a real-life survivor, Burquest says her thoughts of being on the reality show Survivor returned. “I thought, ‘What am I waiting for? If I’m going to try, I’ve got to do it now.’”
In the summer of 2015, Burquest was floating the Mississippi with her sister in law. “I thought it would make a good audition video,” she says. So she shot a video and sent it in. To her surprise, she was contacted for a phone interview and later invited to Los Angeles along with other finalists for a week of casting interviews. She made it through every round of casting interviews and was eventually cast for Season 33, Survivor: Millennials vs Gen X.
“I think two things got me on the show: my job, because I work with young adults – Millenials – although I had no idea that’s the direction they were going to go on the show, and surviving breast cancer.”
Camp for Big Kids
There are more sacrifices to being on Survivor than the challenges you see in the show, Burquest says. She missed her oldest son’s college graduation and another son’s prom and baseball season along with her daughter’s softball season.
“I left my family for seven weeks, so I knew I had to give this everything I possibly could give if I was going to justify being away from them for that long.” She was most concerned about leaving her 15-year-old daughter. While playing the game, Burquest says she visualized seeing her daughter at the airport when she returned. “I left her a card to open every day while I was gone.”
Despite the difficulty of leaving her family behind, Burquest says the experience was better than she could have imagined. “My husband and I were youth pastors for 15 years before we were young adult pastors. And I would tell [Survivor host] Jeff Probst, ‘This is so much fun. It’s like camp for big kids!’”
“Getting Me Back”
And what is camp without a life-changing moment? Burquest’s came on the anniversary of her cancer diagnosis. With no calendars or clocks available, she had learned to estimate the time of day by the location of the sun and was marking the days on a log to keep track. When April 11 rolled around, she remembered being diagnosed on that day four years earlier. It was also the day of an ocean water challenge for the Survivor tribes.
“The second challenge we did was a water challenge in which we had to dive off of a platform, swim across 30 feet of ocean, climb up a cargo net on a floating platform, leap into the air to grab a hanging key, fall 15 feet into the water, and then swim the key over to another platform,” Sunday explains. “Before we left for it, I was interviewed alone on camera. It was April 11 – the day I had gotten diagnosed. The producers knew that and asked what it would mean to me to win the challenge that day, and I told them it would be like kicking cancer in the butt. The producer was crying, the camera guy was crying, the boom guy was crying. This was huge for me to know that four years ago I got diagnosed with cancer, and today I’m competing in a challenge on Survivor!”
Even though the challenge scared her, Burquest wanted to leap into air and grab that key for what host Jeff Probst had called “a hero moment.”
“I was the oldest female out there,” she says. “I was so nervous about my ability against football players and 20-year-olds. But I did it. I dove in, and I got up the net fast, I leaped out and I grabbed the key.”
Watch the Ocean Challenge here.
That was a life-changing moment for Burquest.
“I realized that when I jumped in the water and got back out, I was different,” she says. “I felt like I jumped in the water and left all the after effects of cancer in the water when I got back out.”
That cathartic moment has stayed with Burquest since she returned from Figi in May. “Going on Survivor was really like getting me back…because for so long I wasn’t me.”
Survivor: Millennials vs Gen X is now six episodes into the season, and so far, Burquest is surviving.
Watch Survivor: Millennials vs Gen X on CBS on Wednesdays at 8/7 Central and save the date to hear Sunday Burquest speak at Minnesota Oncology’s 4th Annual Hope in Motion 5K and Family Walk to celebrate National Cancer Survivor’s Day on Sunday, June 4, 2017.