The reality star opens up about her cancer diagnosis and vows to fight the disease with everything she's got

By Sunday Burquest and Steve Helling
August 06, 2020 10:48 AM
Advertisement
Sunday Burquest
Credit: Courtesy Sunday Burquest

Sunday Burquest was a youth pastor from Otsego, Minnesota when she took seventh place on Survivor Millennials vs Generation X in 2016. Before competing, she was already a survivor, having beaten breast cancer in 2012. Now Burquest, 49, is facing a greater challenge. In June, she was diagnosed with esophegeal cancer that spread to her liver, ovary and surrounding lymph nodes. She is sharing her journey with PEOPLE.com. 

Survivor can mimic real life situations, and in my case is true. As a contestant, I was blindsided by the game. But June 3 brought a real-life blindside when I was diagnosed with cancer.

To be exact, the cancer is in my GI Junction. Because it has spread to my liver, ovary and surrounding lymph nodes, surgery is not an option. It is a stage 4 terminal diagnosis.

I will be on chemotherapy to manage the tumors and make me comfortable. My doctor says that a typical patient would have a few months to two years to live. 

Good thing I’m not typical.

Two weeks after my diagnosis, my son got married. I had my first chemotherapy treatment the week of the wedding, and although I was functioning, I felt like my head was in a fog for days. It was a lot to process in a short amount of time. 

Sunday Burquest
Sunday Burquest dancing with her son at his wedding
| Credit: Courtesy Sunday Burquest

The Good

I have an amazing tribe supporting me: my husband, four amazing kids and two daughters-in-law. My biggest concern was putting my kids through another cancer diagnosis. While it hasn't been easy, they're quick to ask what I need.

My family and friends have stepped up in so many areas. The messages and cards I receive have kept me going on my hardest days. 

My Survivor family has come out to support me in such a way: a GoFundMe page was started by the “Survivor Mom Squad." There has also been Stepping out with Sunday, a monthly walking challenge. Almost all of my castmates showed up on a podcast to surprise me. They've made specialized T-shirts, had weekly segments on Twitch in my honor and held a fundraising poker tournament. Zeke Smith, Chris Hammons, Bret LaBelle and Hannah Shapiro even created a Survivor buff in my honor. Jeff Probst should be proud of the Survivor family.

I keep my spirits up most days, not only because of the monumental amount of support, but also having my faith fully intact keeping me in a place of joy and peace. 

Sunday Burquest
Credit: Courtesy Sunday Burquest

The Bad

Due to chemo, I can't drink or touch anything cold;  it gives me a burning sensation. I tried to do my hair and make-up for the groom's dinner, and my hands experienced neuropathy. I cried as I told my 19-year-old daughter Kennedy that I couldn’t get ready because my hands weren’t working. She hugged me and said, “It’s okay, Mom, I can do it for you.” 

My treatment schedule takes over my entire life. After days of symptoms, you begin to feel “normal” just in time to do it again. I have nausea and fatigue, but the tingling fingers and difficulty drinking are the worst part. When I plan out my months, I consider how to use the four to five days I feel good. Those are cold Diet Coke and ice cream days. 

The medical bills are overwhelming. We don't have health insurance, but are a part of a co-op type group where we can get some reimbursements. One chemotherapy appointment costs $13,000! 

Sunday Burquest
Credit: Courtesy Sunday Burquest

The Ugly 

I'm in a much better position than countless of others. There are people who are hospitalized. Many people don’t have the same access to medical care — and they certainly do not have a tribe of over 500 behind them. 

There are children all over the world dealing with terminal cancer and living with pain during a time when they should simply be allowed to play. My heart breaks for parents who have to watch their kids suffer through cancer.

I had my second chemotherapy treatment last week and the symptoms smacked me hard. Even so, I stand by my faith and the belief that I will see a miracle.

The real blindside will come when I can tell the world I’m cancer-free. I find hope in five simple words: The Stage Has Been Set.