Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Sunday Burquest on the difficulty of playing as a person of faith
With Survivor filming for seasons 41 and 42 indefinitely postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, EW is reaching back into the reality show’s past. We sent a Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire to a batch of former players to fill out with their thoughts about their time on the show as well as updates on what they’ve been up to since. Each weekday, EW will post the answers from a different player.
Sunday Burquest was a cancer survivor when she appeared on Survivor. But you might not have known from watching the show. What you would have known from seeing Sunday on Millennials vs. Gen X is that she was very well liked by the tribe and seen as a caring mother figure by younger players in the game. (Which is why she had to go before she made it to the end. And go she did, ending up in seventh place.)
But there is so much more we did not see about Sunday’s game, and she is here to set the record straight by sharing all the big moments we did not witness, as well as being open and honest about the internal battle she faced in playing as a person of faith — especially when contestants who rely on religion are often unfairly held to a dramatic double standard in terms of what they are allowed to do and say when it comes to deceit in the game.
Sunday also tells us about the struggles she faced right after coming back home from the game — struggles which led to a weeklong stay in the hospital — as well as her latest battle with cancer. It’s a battle which you can help her fight by buying yourself a special Sunday buff designed by season 33 castmate Zeke Smith, proceeds of which are going to help Sunday’s family defray medical costs. In the meantime, strap in for Sunday’s Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you’ve been up to since appearing on Survivor.
SUNDAY BURQUEST: First, I’ve been busy with family. While filming the show, I missed my oldest son’s college graduation, my third son’s prom, a baseball season, and my daughter’s softball season. Either my husband or myself attended every one of my four kids’ games, no matter the sport. We laugh, because while my husband, Jeff, came to see me for the family visit, my daughter actually hit four of her only career home runs in the two games we were both away. In the past four years, two of my sons have gotten married, I sent a son and a daughter off to college and as of this year, I’m officially an empty-nester — does that make me old?
Unfortunately, for the second time in my life, I am dealing with a cancer diagnosis. After beating breast cancer in 2012, a terminal cancer diagnosis was definitely not something I expected. I’m actively fighting the disease with chemo, which, in my doctor’s words, “will extend my window of time,” however being a person of faith, I still believe in miracles and am fully expecting one to come my way!
Professionally speaking, I authored a book, Grit Girl, Power To Survive Inspired by Grace, which was a huge accomplishment. I launched a career as an inspirational/motivational speaker and founded Grit Girl, an online community for women. I’ve also worked as a manager at my local movie theater, a job I absolutely adored because I love movies, but more importantly I was able to work with young adults (something I’ve enjoyed since my former days as a pastor). Sadly, due to COVID, we were unable to keep all the employees.
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
My proudest moment was during our Tribal Council that ended in a rock draw. We spent the day scrambling as usual, but most of us knew we could possibly be looking at a tie vote. The only good news about walking into that Tribal was knowing that my name was not in the mix. Both alliances were ready to fight to keep their numbers. Tribal Council was contentious from the beginning, and multiple conversations were taking place at the same time.
I was sitting in the middle of the warring alliances. As we whispered to each other, trying to decide what to do after the first tie vote, I overheard David say to Adam and Hannah, “Let’s just vote out Sunday.” I immediately turned around and asked David, “Did you just say vote for Sunday”? He denied it, and I said, “Well, I heard you, and that’s a dumb plan.” He shrugged his shoulders and I knew he was moving from that idea (thank God!). I looked over at Will and Bret, and we agreed to stick to the plan.
Overhearing us, Adam and Hannah looked at me and asked, “What’s the plan?” I was a bit miffed with the two of them, partly because I felt like in that moment they saw me as a weak player who would give up the plan our alliance had in place. We had an inkling that David was going to play an idol, so I looked down the row at the players sitting at Tribal. On the spot I decided to give Adam and Hannah a fake name, someone I felt wasn’t getting votes that night.
My hope was that if David played his idol, it would be wasted. I was confident Ken wasn’t going to receive any votes. My answer to Hannah’s question was “the plan is Ken.” David decided to play his idol, as he started to say, “Jeff, I’m playing this idol for…” (his original plan was to play it for Hannah), he was interrupted and both Adam and Hannah told him that he heard us say Ken’s name. David played the idol for Ken unnecessarily, and the revote was between Hannah and Zeke.
Both sides knew it was imperative to keep the numbers, so there was definitely a feeling of desperation. At one point, before the second vote, Adam leaned over and told me he’d give me his advantage if I’d vote with them. I gave him a dirty look, and just thought to myself, there’s no way I would betray my alliance.
I have to insert here, I think Adam and Hannah listening to me when I gave them Ken’s name was a testament to my social game. They believed me even though I was in the opposing alliance. Viewers saw the drama play out: Jessica ended up with the black rock, and was out of the game. It was heart-wrenching for all of us, especially since Jessica was the one to vocalize her reluctance to go to rocks.
After the emotionally charged Tribal, I sat on the beach with David and Hannah as we talked through what just happened. Hannah was especially upset about Jessica being the one out of the game instead of herself. This late-night conversation is one example of why I believe people often comment on the respect our season had for each other as players. Even when we were in opposite alliances, we would talk after the tough Tribals. I remember, several nights later, laughing with David as I told him “You got me” after being on the opposite side of a vote.
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experience?
My biggest regret is that I played the game too cautiously with my words and actions. At the time of filming, I had worked in full-time ministry for 26 years, the last 15 of those years as a youth and young adult pastor. My position leads to the second issue for me, which was playing Survivor as a person of faith. Many people I knew were shocked when they found out I was on the show and in their minds could not reconcile how a Christian plays a game of deceit. The entire game, I felt I was playing two games, the first being the actual game of Survivor; the second was navigating this game with my faith intact.
I’m of the opinion that often, not always, Christians are portrayed in a negative light, some of this is self-inflicted of course, but not all of it. I was determined to be a person who showed kindness to every person, no matter how different they were from me. Honestly, I think I accomplished my goal and was very happy with how I played in that regard. I also was very aware that all of my words would be scrutinized, analyzed and judged. By nature, Christians should have a non-judgmental attitude towards others, yet sadly they are often extremely judgmental of other Christians’ choices.
My personality is one that does not hold back what I think, I’ve had to learn as I’ve matured to use a better filter when I talk to others. When it came time to confessionals, all I could picture was cringing as I heard myself say what I really thought about what was going on at camp or how frustrated with one of my tribemates. I grew up in a home where sarcasm is the norm with my siblings and I, and I am definitely not short on it, but during my confessionals I couldn’t bring myself to say what I was actually thinking. Not only were the young adults I was trying to be a good example for going to be watching, my faith community would be as well. During the majority of my confessionals, I talked myself out of allowing myself to be me. This of course does not make for exciting or entertaining confessionals, which I’m sure is the reason mine were limited during our season.
What’s something that will blow fans’ minds that happened out there in your season but never made it to TV?
Our second immunity challenge was “The Ocean.” This day was significant for me because it was the exact same day I had been diagnosed with breast cancer just four years earlier. While filming, we aren’t told the date or time, but it was early enough in the game that I had been tracking the days leading up to the anniversary of this life changing event. It was confirmed that this was indeed the day when before the challenge, I was asked during my confessional what it would feel like to win this challenge on the same day I was diagnosed. My response, “It would be like kicking cancer in the butt… (or some similar word)!”
The challenge plays out, I did my part well and the Gen-X tribe won. It was an incredible feeling to win on the same day that I had been told I had stage 3 breast cancer. That night at camp, I shared the story with my tribe and there was hardly a dry eye in camp. Fast forward to watching the show that fall. I, of course, knew I had talked about this important anniversary in my life, in confessionals both before and after the challenge. I just knew this would be highlighted in the episode. How could it not be? I had a huge party with family and friends, over 250 people, and just kept telling them, “You'll want to see this episode.” These are people that stood by me and my family as we walked through one of the darkest moments in our lives (at least up until that point).
I was literally in shock when not a second of my story, the breast cancer, or the anniversary date were aired. I cried at the end, mainly because I felt it could have sent a strong message of hope to the millions of women facing this disease. I was happy to see there was a “secret scene” released the next day. After the show aired, I discovered most podcasters and fans had no idea I was a breast cancer survivor. I was asked several times why I never brought it up on the show.
On a completely opposite note, I’ll share a quick something that may surprise a few fans. After the merge, there were many afternoons where I would hide one of our small blankets (part of one of the Millennials rewards, pre-merge). Just before leaving for Tribal Council, I would casually put one by a tree right just outside of camp, somewhere that would be easy for me to find in the dark. Arriving back from Tribal, it is always pitch-black unless you are near the fire or the moon is out. As we’d all settle into our spots for the night, inevitably someone would be asking, “Where’s the other blanket?” I never said a word. Then, once it seemed like most everyone was on their way to sleeping, I’d quietly get up and get the blanket I’d hid before Tribal. No one would ever suspect me of doing such a thing, I mean I was totally out of my character. But when you are cold, you are cold. I always shared my blanket with Bret and David, but let’s face it, those tiny blankets didn’t do much!
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
I have feelings about my edit that are on opposite ends of the spectrum. First, I don’t want to be one of those people that always complains about the edit, slams the producers, and just in general has a negative view of the game. There is no question that I got a quiet edit. Honestly, it was really difficult to watch. I kept thinking, Where am I? I was consumed with trying to figure out how my perception of what I was actively doing in the game could possibly be so different from what I was watching. I felt invisible, for a very long time.
As these episodes continued, it was getting more and more difficult. I will say that we have an incredible Survivor Alumni family, and several players reached out to be privately just to encourage me. One player told me some of the most valuable advice I received throughout the process. She said, “Focus on your relationships and the experience you had out there, and forget the edit.” It helped me so much. Since that time, I’ve made it a point to reach out to other players that I can see are in the same position.
On the other side of that coin, I was very happy about how I was portrayed and felt the times they did show me or my conversations, they were an accurate portrayal of who I am. I felt for the most part the viewers saw me being caring of my castmates, or worrying about somebody. I was clear I was the mom for the season, and I was okay with that.
Do I wish more of what I said or did make the cut? Of course, I’d be lying if I didn’t. But I also know the story line is essential to the making of the show. I’ve often reminded myself this is a for-profit business, and the producers and editors have a tough job bringing together the best story for the season. I was on a season of big characters, and also some serious stories, especially with Adam’s mom, Susie. Her story was and deserved to be the one viewers could connect with, and I am so grateful Adam was able to share it with so many. #LiveLikeSusie
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
Coming home after the show was honestly the weirdest feeling ever. After suffering on an island for over 30 days with people who just a month earlier were strangers, I realized I desperately missed them. Coming home to laundry and dishes and driving to my kids games felt like the Twilight Zone. Every park we’d walk by or in a wooded area, I caught myself looking over to see if there was a good spot to build a shelter or find firewood. I discovered I was almost uncomfortable in my bed. I even slept on the floor a few nights. I woke my husband up several times because I’d be sitting straight up in my bed saying, “I have to go find more firewood.”
The day we left Fiji, I got a bug bite on my elbow. By the time I flew from Fiji to L.A., my arm was starting to swell and turn red. I finally made it home around midnight on a Saturday night and immediately headed to urgent care Sunday a.m. where they gave me an antibiotic and said to follow up the next day with my doctor. Monday, the swelling had gotten worse, and my arm was hot to the touch, so I went into my clinic. My doctor prescribed a stronger antibiotic and a list of things to watch for in case I needed to be seen again.
Later that night, I started to slur my words and ended up with a fever of 104.5. My husband got me to the emergency room and I was admitted to the hospital for seven days and had two surgeries on my elbow. Before anyone feels sorry for me, the hospital is almost (almost) like a hotel for a mom, and I was exhausted on every front, so it actually was a good break.
The funny part about my hospital stay was that I was there the night of the Koah Rong live finale. My nurse asked if I liked the show, I giggled to myself and told her I did. I told her she should pay attention at the end when they play the preview for the next season (one of my favorite parts of any live finale). Of course, I had no idea I’d actually be in the preview for the season, but immediately after it aired my phone went bonkers with calls and text messages. My nurse came running back into my room practically jumping up and down she was so excited.
For the rest of the night, I had a lot of nurses stop in to ask me how I was doing, it was pretty funny. The nice part about being in the preview was that I wasn’t going to have to make up a story to everyone about where I’d been for the past seven weeks!
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
I remember our first night sitting in our quickly made shelter in a horrible storm for what felt like an eternity. We were miserable, freezing, and soaking wet. I kept telling myself, You signed up for this, you asked for this, as cold rain was going down the back of my neck all night. Even at that, I never regretted going on the show. My seven days in the hospital and two surgeries never made me regret it for a second. Being somewhat disappointed in my edit never made me regret playing Survivor. There is so much about Survivor that is a part of my life and I am still a huge fan, I’ll never regret getting this opportunity.
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your season?
Bret LaBelle — my best friend coming out of the show, and we talk and text regularly. I can’t imagine what my Survivor experience would have been without him. The relationships I’ve made coming out of the show are truly the best part of the entire experience. Bret and I think so alike, we almost always know what the other is thinking, and seriously most of our conversations are far more laughing than anything else. He’s just a great guy.
Chris Hammons — being Chris is extremely busy with his firm, we don’t talk as often, but when we do it feels as if we did all the time. I’ve been to visit Chris and his cutie wife, Jenna, a couple of times in Oklahoma and consider them and their boys family.
Adam — Adam has been a rock of support throughout my second brush with cancer. I have a special bond with Adam, we communicated quite a bit after the loss of his beautiful mom, Susie. I’ve been to visit him in California and even designed his Survivor memorabilia wall in his room. Adam is someone you can always count on and you always know is in your corner. I also really like his dad, Alan!
Hannah — although Hannah and I had our ups and downs on the island and we are about as opposite as two people can be, we’ve found a way to really appreciate our relationship. We text multiple times a week. Hannah sends me cute puppy TikToks to brighten my days, and I love it.
Zeke — Again, another one I don’t get to talk to weekly, but we communicate through text. Zeke has been working tirelessly selling buffs created by himself, Bret, Chris and Hanna. They are selling them to raise funds towards my cancer treatment. Zeke was waiting for me at Ponderosa with a Diet Coke (which he had to go to town to get in Fiji), he’s thoughtful and always makes you feel like he really cares about you.
Jay and Will — I get occasional calls and texts from both Jay and Will. I spent many hours on the beach of Ikabula with both of them. Assuming the mom role ended up being a really great part of my social game, but it was way more than just part of the game for me. Anytime I hear from either of them, my day is made.
David — I text with David. He sends me little texts to remind me I can beat this cancer thing. But beyond that, David and I had a great relationship on the island and that hasn’t changed. I’ve been able to see him a couple times afterwards. We shared a couple fun moments on the island and that bond doesn’t go away.
Lucy — I’ve been out to California to visit Lucy a few times. This woman works harder than anyone I know, so our texts and calls are limited, but we are contact one way or another regularly.
Do you still watch Survivor, and if so, what’s your favorite season you were not on and why?
Absolutely! Everyone knows not to call me while Survivor is on, and I still cry at the opening of every season. My favorite season is a toss-up between Philippines and BvW2. I initially was drawn to Survivor: Philippines because I grew up watching The Facts of Life and was excited to watch Lisa Whelchel play. I enjoyed watching her relationship with Jonathan Penner. Most of all, I loved the dynamic between Denise and Malcolm, and who wouldn’t love a season with Denise Stapley as the winner?
Second, I really like BvW2 for a couple of reasons. Mostly, it’s because it was the first time I applied to be on the show. I applied with my son Carter, and in my ultimate dream universe I’d love to play a BvW season with him. I like watching the dynamics of the blood relatives and how the players navigated them. It’s amazing how players will do what is best for their game even if it’s to the detriment of who they came to play with. Most players respect the game and are seriously competitive, their desire to win after making it through the long process to get on the show drives them to do what it takes to earn the title of Sole Survivor. I would hope I would do the same.
Who’s one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
I would love to play with Monica Culpepper. Even though Monica appeared to be on the quieter side, I felt like she was always playing hard and thinking ahead. As a mom who has been watching from the very first season, you find yourself relating to the players that seem the most like you. I also love an underdog, and always pull for that one player who you know is working hard, but doesn’t seem to get the recognition they may deserve for one reason or another. I even attempted to wear jewelry to Tribal, because it always stuck out to me that Monica did. I had a necklace that I brought to wear and it immediately turned green, that was the end of that.
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
One change I’d love to see is the discontinuation of “advantages” that are not really advantages, the kind that can do more damage than they do good for a player. This includes advantages that are something they use against another player, like the idol nuliffer, for example. I think if a player wins or finds an advantage, they should actually get a true advantage. I don’t like the advantages that put the player in a position to suffer consequences for using what they worked to earn or find on their own. Of course, like life, no one ever said Survivor is fair, but I really don’t think these types of advantages are fair!
Finally, would you play again if asked?
I would definitely play again. I think coming back to play after beating cancer for a second time would be quite the accomplishment. I’d also love the opportunity to play the game without worrying about my position at home and who may or may not like my decisions on the show. That being said, playing the game as a person of faith is one thing I felt I navigated really well in a game not known for its honesty. As a Christian, I was really proud of how I played in this regard and it’s definitely one aspect about me that will never change.