A Springfield mum has put herself through the ringer on a new reality competition program – mirroring the survival situation her own son endured after his cancer diagnosis and treatment.
“A lot of people have been surprised to find out I was cast on a reality TV show – but in reality, this has been a year-long journey,” Rachel Leembruggen said.
The show is Million Dollar Island, and it airs on Mondays and Tuesdays at 7:30pm on Channel Seven.
*SPOILER ALERT* for those who have not yet seen the latest episode(s).
After several weeks of airing, Rachel is currently still in contention and can be seen on the program tonight (Tuesday, July 4).
Rachel’s son Nate was diagnosed with B Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia – a type of blood cancer – in December, 2020. For the next two years, the Leembruggens effectively had to put their lives on hold.
A showcase of the family’s combined strength, Nate survived his battle after completing his 25-month program of chemotherapy in February this year.
Nate, 7, is now happy and healthy and has begun his first year at school – a massive relief for parents Rachel and Josh, as well as young brothers Zane and Jack.
“Nate is thriving in Year One at school. His brothers are enjoying having him home more,” Rachel noted.
But while things since have certainly improved, last year Rachel was not in a good place.
“After nearly two years, I could see the end of his chemotherapy in sight. Nate was back at school, Josh was back at work, my other two sons were thriving in kindy and day care – but I was floundering, big time,” Rachel explained.
“I’d put on nine kilograms. I’d shut my business. I was still caught up in his daily chemo doses and scheduled hospital trips. I was fearful. I’d lost my sense of safety… So I stayed at home. I didn’t know how to talk to people anymore.”
Rachel said meeting new people was emotionally exhausting – frequently feeling as though she was obliged to unravel her family’s adversity upon them.
“I had to tell them what had happened [and] see their emotional reaction – all which took emotional energy that I didn’t have. So I didn’t meet new people. My world got smaller and smaller.”
It reached a point where she “hated” everything cancer had taken from them, she said.
Re-entering the world…
Rachel saw Nate’s end of treatment date looming – and just as Nate was to get better by that stage, she too became determined to become healthier.
“I just know that if the mum in the family isn’t happy and healthy, it’s very hard for the whole family unit to move forward,” Rachel explained.
“I knew I’d have to push myself to get there. Anyone who is a parent knows how hard it is to prioritise yourself, when you’re at home, looking after your family.”
One night, Rachel was browsing Facebook, and saw an ad pop up on her screen. ‘Do you have what it takes to live on a deserted island and win a million dollars?’ the advertisement asked.
“I thought, ‘well, obviously yes! That sounds easy in comparison.’”
In reality, Rachel was defiant.
She refused to “let cancer rule all our decisions,” she declared.
“This was a lovely opportunity for me to get away from it all, and focus on getting myself better. So I applied. It was the easiest application in the world. In a million years, I never thought I’d be accepted.”
But Rachel kept getting through every application round: questionnaires, medicals, solo interviews, group interviews, psychology appointments…
“Each time, I’d feel so proud. Like I was getting better.
“I remember the feeling, driving home, that I’d already won – just from going through the casting process… because I was beginning to enter the world again after living in a ‘chemotherapy bubble’ for so long.”
The show was to film during the very last month of his treatment period.
Rachel sought advice from her family oncologist at the time about whether it was feasible to travel overseas for potentially a month while Nate was finishing maintenance chemotherapy.
“[Dr Little] wholeheartedly encouraged me,” Rachel said.
“I nearly cry thinking about it. She said it sounded exciting, that Nate was very stable, and that I should, because it’s important for me to ‘be a person’, too.
“So, with the support of our oncologist team and my superhero husband, I went.”
Rachel recently shared on her Facebook page much of the rationale for her big decision:
“I went because I needed time away to grieve. I went because I needed time to dream a new dream for our family again. I went to escape the world of hospitals, and chemo, and cancer. I went because I knew if we were to move forward from this traumatic event as a family, that our whole family needed to be better – and that included me. I went because I felt that God was calling me out.
“I went because I was that desperate for a holiday!
“I went because I wanted to show Australia how strong oncology mums are. I went because I wanted to give hope to other mums processing trauma, and that they can work through it, too.
“I hope I do every mother proud who has walked through a traumatic diagnosis with their child.
“Because it’s their story, too.”
Up for the challenge
When Rachel found out that Ant Middleton was going to be the host, it “scared the life” out of her.
“You see him on SAS Australia, and you think: ‘Oh, gosh!’
“That really got me moving – going to the gym, and trying to be a bit healthy again.”
The premise of Million Dollar Island involves enduring various team challenges – as well as the mental battles of hunger and isolation – to keep a personal bracelet that is at first worth an individual $10,000 but, depending on the outcome, could net the sole remaining person the entire million dollars.
“If you lose a challenge and you have no bracelet, you go home,” Rachel explained.
“The challenges were quite physical. I was glad that I’d done a little bit of gym preparation.
“But for me, the challenges weren’t in the arena. They were on the beach, meeting 100 new people and then having to tell them my story and go over it again and again 100 times.
“A job interview was a really big thing for me, because I wanted to get back into the workplace. So coming off the island, I was just super-charged, and confident to then go into job interviews because I’d had so much practice of telling my story.
“The living conditions were very rough, with the lack of food. There were two days where all we had to eat was literally sea snails. Tiny sea snails. [We used] a fishing hook to scrape them out of the shell and then fry them and eat them. And that was it for two days. Two days!”
That reveals the level of extreme survival on the show, Rachel said.
“Obviously there’s that possibility: ‘am I going to be able to last this? How am I going to be able to endure this?’ You’ve got the bracelet there; it’s like a constant reminder. It’s up to me whether I take this thing off or not.
“But I was never, ever going to quit. I’m an oncology mum – a parent with a child going through cancer. There is no quit in you.”
Sharing the pain
“Every time that I felt like things were a bit tough or hard on the island, I would just compare it to all the kids that I knew that were back in the oncology ward, back in Queensland Children’s Hospital. Some of the medicines they have to eat…
“But there’s no other options for these kids, and there was no other option for me on the island, either, than to just dig in and eat. Coming from that perspective, nothing was too hard.
“I was actually very happy to go through the hardship, to feel any pain or any discomfort… because all that time that Nate was feeling the pain and the discomfort, I always – always – wished that was me.
“I would have done anything to take it from him.
“I would just tell myself that any pain that I felt on the island – I just pretended that I was absorbing it. I don’t know… that’s just how I was getting through it. And that ended up just being the most healing process.”
“It was game-changing,” Rachel said.
“Physically, it was just a really good cleansing. Not eating any processed food. It was like my free wellness treat.
“Just being out in nature, sleeping under the stars, listening to the beach every night.
“I’m an environmental scientist and nature is such a big, important thing for me.
“There’s so much scientific research showing how healing it is to be in nature.”
As for how Rachel does on the show, now entering its fourth week on the airwaves, she is tight-lipped.
“I didn’t tell the boys anything about it, because – I mean – their capability of keeping a secret? No, we couldn’t tell anyone.”
Besides – as Rachel said – she’s already a winner.
Read more about Rachel’s story here.