By JOHN FORTMEYER
GRESHAM — As would anyone receiving an unexpected cancer diagnosis, Gabrielle “Gabby” Neilan was genuinely stunned and scared when hers arrived last October.
Today, as she undergoes intense treatment for thyroid cancer, Neilan is genuinely grateful for what it has allowed her to learn not only about herself but her relationship to God
She is also genuinely excited to bring her personal story, filled with faith and humor, to a national event.
Just being herself.
That’s Neilan’s goal as the 22-year-old Christian woman from Gresham carries the Miss Oregon USA crown into the national Miss USA pageant at a yet unannounced date later this year.
Less than a week after having her cancerous thyroid removed, and even though feeling very weak and just plain “miserable” during the several days of competition in late November at the Portland Airport Sheraton, Neilan beat out 14 other women to win the state pageant.
“I was shocked,” she said. “I stood there in awe. I was just praying and thanking the Lord. I knew it had to be the Lord, because there was no other way.”
The state pageant’s judges were not aware at the time of Neilan’s cancer battle. But when she hits the national stage later this year, Miss USA pageant officials will be fully knowledgable. Not only is there a small scar on her throat from the surgery, but there is also the possibility that Neilan might need to wear a wig, should chemotheraphy be deemed necessary, which could cause her hair to fall out. Meanwhile, at press time for this newspaper she is receiving radiation treatment, after which she will be isolated from other people for about a week and a half, since her body will initially be unable to fight off any potential infections.
Neilan, however, is quick with a laugh about her unusual circumstances as a national pageant contestant and says she is “content. The Lord is using me right now.”
The thyroid problem emerged when Neilan awoke one morning in September with a tender lump-like area in her throat. Antibiotics didn’t clear it up, and an ultrasound and biopsy eventually showed the seriousness of the health challenge.
Neilan acknowledges that cancer is not a joyful thing and that the diagnosis seems dark at first. “But I have the light of Christ, knowing that He is going to attack the enemy for me. He’s on the other side, with thumbs up.”
She said her time of isolation this month will allow her to focus fully on the Lord, and make sure she is looking to Him, and not to her own strength, when she resumes a very full schedule of appearances this spring, as well as preparation for the national pageant and the big event itself.
“This week and a half that I am down will be the strongest part of my life, where I will be the strongest with God that I have been,” she said.
Both health challenges and pageant competition are familiar territory to Neilan. She became interested in pageants at age 13 after fracturing her spine while doing gymnastics. She found out later that she was born with a rare defect in her vertebrae and will need spinal fusion surgery when she is older. She placed in the Miss Teen Oregon competition in 2007 and was third runner-up in the 2009 Miss Oregon contest.
“You have to know who you are to be successful in pageants,” she said. “You have to be confident in yourself and know your strengths and weaknesses and not conform to anyone else’s ideas.”
Raised in Gresham as one of four sisters, Neilan graduated from Gresham High in 2008 and attended Mount Hood Community College for two years. She then attended a training program in Oregon City and became a certified phlebotomist —one who collects blood samples for lab analysis in a clinical environment.
“I always joke with people and say that I am a vampire,” she quipped.
However, she is currently working part-time as a saleswoman at the Nordstrom’s store at Clackamas Town Center. When the national pageant is over, she plans to continue her college studies and eventually do medical work.
As winner of the state pageant, Neilan was awarded a $45,000 scholarship to Lindenwood University in Missouri. When the national competition concludes, Neilan plans to go to college and enter the medical field.
Neilan, who is active at Radiant Church in Gresham, said her faith in Christ grew greatly after her high school years. She said her family, which she described as her “No 1 cheering fans,” took the news of her cancer “hardest at first, but I think it has brought them closer to the Lord.”
Neilan said people are sometimes confused between the Miss USA competition, which leads potentially to the Miss Universe crown, and the Miss America contest. While there are similarities, the two competitions also differ in some ways. For example, the Miss USA organization does not have a talent competition, while Miss America does.
Another is that the Miss USA contest is owned by a well-known celebrity, whom Neilan will meet at the pageant.
“Donald Trump is my boss .. it’s a little intimidating,” she said with a smile.
By JOHN FORTMEYER