On the night before her double mastectomy, Theresa Sundstrom posted a photo to her Instagram account urging followers to "drown their loofah" and spend time using their hands to feel their breasts for lumps while showering.
"I challenge you to get to know your body: every lump, bump, wrinkle and freckle," the 31-year-old wrote in the post. "Having a built-in road map of your body, might save your life."
Sundstrom, who chronicled her breast cancer treatment on her Instagram account, Quarantini and Chemo, was showering after a particularly tough ride on her Peloton bike on April 21 when she dropped her loofah.
"I was sore from working out earlier in the week and I'd just done a 45-minute Cody Rigsby ride, so my thighs were fatigued from biking," Sundstrom told TODAY. "I dropped my loofah and I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I'm so lazy, I don't want to pick it up.'"
"I’d forgotten to shave my armpits," she continued, "So I just lathered soap across my chest and into my armpit area with my hands and then I grazed across a bump."
The next few days were a whirlwind for the nurse anesthetist, who lives in Minnetonka, Minnesota. After a virtual visit with her doctor due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she was sent for a mammogram and an ultrasound. Doctors performed a biopsy, and Sundstrom received a call a few days later letting her know she had invasive ductal carcinoma, an aggressive form of breast cancer.
"I never thought I would have breast cancer at the age of 31," said Sundstrom, who got the call while she was at work. "I went home and cried it out and then I said, ‘Let’s figure it out.’"
While breast cancer is rare in young women, about 11% of all new cases of breast cancer in the U.S. are found in women younger than 45 years old. It's important for women to talk to their doctors to learn if they are at an increased risk, and to know that lumps aren't the only sign of breast cancer. Other signs of breast cancer can include dents, dimples, red rash, swelling, nipple discharge or inverted nipples. Any changes to the breast should be discussed with a doctor.
Sundstrom started chemotherapy on May 7 and completed 16 rounds of treatment on September 25. One month later, she had a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery. Throughout her journey, she made regular posts to her Instagram account, which she started as a way of keeping herself connected to others during treatment.
Sundstrom says she decided to start the Instagram account, which has nearly 3,000 followers, and a blog as a way to express her feelings and stay motivated throughout her chemotherapy treatments, for which she chose to wear a cold cap, an accompaniment to chemotherapy which prevents hair loss and, in Sundstrom's case, needed to be worn for eight hours on her chemotherapy days.
"The cold cap, it's like a chore and you become pretty hypothermic while it’s occurring. But it really worked well for me," said Sundstrom. "It’s kind of that 'look good, feel good' thing."
Sundstom's quirky Instagram account, where she shares reminders for followers to do monthly breast self-exams using the #FeelThemOnTheFirst hashtag, also helped her stay looking and feeling good amid the grueling treatments.
"I'd put on makeup and drag myself out there for some of the photos," Sundstrom said. "I wanted to get my message out there, but in a way that was positive and uplifting to give women hope that you can get through this. It’s not going to be the most pleasant thing you’ve ever done, but you will get through it and it is doable."
Sundstrom also shared posts about continuing her workout routines during treatment, most of which she completed on her Peloton bike, purchased by herself and her husband at the start of the pandemic when they knew their gyms would be closing.
During her chemotherapy treatments, Sundstrom hit her goals of competing 100, then 200 rides on her Peloton.
"I was in the best shape of my life before I got diagnosed," Sundstrom explained. "I was reading in my chemo information packet that I should do moderate to mild activity like a stationary bike and I was like, 'Oh perfect I have one of those!'"
"I just rode my bike and I thought, 'I’m going to get my 100th ride by this date and then get my 200th by the time I finish chemo,'" said Sundstrom. "Keeping that goal was the best thing I did. I just worked as hard as I possibly could. I was short of breath, I was tired, I was fatigued, but I did the low-impact rides and 10-minute rides here and there just to keep my blood flowing."
The "quarantini" in Sundstrom's Instagram handle was another way to keep posts lighthearted and fun.
"I thought I could make some fun mocktails that related to the different medications I was getting or cancer in general," said Sundstrom, who shared mocktails that helped with nausea or were a nod to the names of chemo medications in her posts. "I started with one that had ginger and apple in it. Another good one was 'the red devil,' which is the nickname for one of chemotherapies I was getting, adriamycin."
After her double mastectomy, Sundstrom learned her body responded well to chemotherapy and she is now cancer-free. All of her breast tissue was removed during her surgery, but doctors have recommended Sundstrom continue to feel for breast changes during monthly self-exams and have yearly check-ups as a means of monitoring for a reoccurrence.
Sundstrom says she and her husband of five years, Erik, were planning to start a family prior to her cancer diagnosis, so she hopes to continue to use her Instagram account both for breast cancer awareness and to answer the question, "Can we have kids after cancer?"
"Maybe I'll throw a surprise mocktail in here or there," Sundstrom added.
Sundstrom, whose mother was also diagnosed with breast cancer at age 55 and has been cancer-free for almost 11 years, said the biggest takeaway she gained from having breast cancer is the importance of self-exams.
“Even though my mom had breast cancer, I never did a self-exam," Sundstrom admitted. "I didn’t even have a baseline of what my breasts felt like because I wasn’t checking them every month."
"My message is know your body: Know what’s normal for you and it’ll be so much easier to know if something's abnormal and act on it quickly. My stage was 1-B and if I had never dropped that loofah, the cancer would have been in my lymph nodes and metastasized in my body. I’m just so fortunate for that night."