Gresham's Gabrielle Neilan battles thyroid cancer while preparing for Miss USA competition

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Miss Oregon USA 2013 Gabrielle Neilan, 22, discovered she had thyroid cancer just weeks before the Miss Oregon USA competition last November.Amid the flawless make-up, evening gowns and bikinis at the Miss USA competition airing live on Sunday night, Gresham native Gabrielle Neilan will stand proud, her physical imperfection on full display.

Look closely, and you’ll see a 1-inch scar across the front of her throat.

“It’s my battle wound,” said Neilan, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer shortly before competing for the state Miss Oregon USA crown last November.

Just two weeks before the state competition, surgeons removed the organ that regulates her metabolism and hormone levels. Despite extreme weakness and illness, Neilan bested 14 women from across Oregon for the state tile in November. by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Just a week before the Miss Oregon USA competition, Neilan underwent a two-part surgery to remove her thyroid. She was still recovering when she won the crown, qualifying her represent Oregon in this Sundays Miss USA Competition. The winner of that pageant will represent the United States in the Miss Universe pageant.

Now, she’s in Las Vegas spending 12 hours a day learning dance routines, fashion runway parade walks for the evening gown and swimwear categories, and onstage rotations in preparation for the Miss USA competition to air live on Sunday night.

“I’m really excited. I don’t think I’m nervous,” Neilan said during an interview at her Gresham home, where she lives with her parents, before leaving for Vegas. “I’m excited to meet all the girls. It’s going to be a sisterhood.”

Neilan, 22, knows a thing or two about sisterhood, being one of four girls — the older two are Brandy, 35, and Kalie, 25, with Charlie, 21, being the youngest.

Growing up, she never imagined competing in pageants, and instead leaned toward athletics. She participated in volleyball, basketball, tournament softball, soccer, track and cheerleading, but her true talent was in gymnastics. But a spine fracture at 13 ended her gymnastics career. Her mother, Josie, who works as a hair stylist in downtown Gresham, had a client, who worked as a modeling agent. by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Gabrielle Neilan attended East Gresham Elementary School and is shown here in her kindergarten picture.

She noticed Neilan’s raven hair and striking eyes, but at 5-foot-5-inches tall, she was too short for modeling. Her undeniable beauty, however, could take her far in the pageant world, the agent said.

At 17, while a student at Gresham High School, Neilan entered her first pageant. She came in first runner-up in Miss Oregon Teen USA 2008 and was hooked.

After graduating high school in 2008, Neilan became a certified phlebotomy technician, inspired to enter the medical field in part by giving insulin shots to her diabetic dog, Yogi, who is blind.

“I’m a certified blood sucker,” she joked.

Then, early last October, she awoke to discover a sore, tender lump on her throat.

“It looked like a fat Adam’s apple,” she said.

Doctors detected a low white blood cell count, determined she was fighting an infection and put her on antibiotics for a week. But the lump didn’t go away. by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Neilan was born and raised in Gresham. She has three sisters and took part in just about every sport under the sun, much to the delight of her father Todd, she said.

She returned to the doctor and oddly, her blood work came back normal, but an ultrasound detected abnormalities with her thyroid. A biopsy a week later found possibly cancerous cells, including some on the outside of a nearby lymph node.

Surgeons removed her thyroid in a two-part surgery, but even after that, doctors still detected cancerous cells in the area.

And all this, just a week before the Miss USA Oregon competition in November. That didn’t faze Neilan.

“There’s a purpose for everything,” she said of what some would have considered to be poor timing, not that there’s ever a good time to get thyroid cancer. “Another month, and it would have been in my lymph node, which is spread to the rest of the body, instead of on my lymph node.”

With the competition behind her, Neilen underwent radioactive iodine therapy in January. She had to be quarantined for two weeks, so she lived in the basement of her family’s split-level home, away from the rest of her family for that time. “That was the hardest part, being alone,” she said. “I did a lot of time one-on-one with the lord, knowing I wasn’t by myself.”

Her sister, Kalie, who is pregnant, came over to visit. Kalie stayed outside, while Neilan communicated with her online through Skype.

The experience was an emotional roller coaster, but worth it.

Just the week before leaving for Las Vegas, blood tests showed she was in remission. After three years, she’ll be considered cancer free.

Neilan will be on thyroid medicine for the rest of her life. Side effects until the dosage is fine-tuned include rapid weight gain and intense hot flashes.

“Great, I’m going to be in a beauty pageant and I’m sweaty and gaining weight,” Neilan said, with a laugh and a wide smile.

To maintain her weight for the competition, she works out morning and night and adheres to a strict diet because of a host of allergies discovered before the cancer diagnosis while trying to find a cause for her energy-zapping fatigue.

She’s still lacking energy, needs a lot of sleep and has a new appreciation for power naps.

But Neilan continues to dream big. She won a four-year scholarship to Lindenwood University in Missouri through the Miss USA organization, and is considering becoming an oncology OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Friends and family signed this photo and hosted a send-off party for her before she left for Las Vegas on May 31 to compete in the Miss USA competition, which airs on Sunday night.

Like she said before, everything happens for a reason.

And as for that scar on her neck, Neilan considers it a beauty mark.

“When I see it, I see strength more than anything,” she said.

If you watch

What: The 62nd Miss USA Competition

When: 9 p.m. Sunday, June 16

Details: Televised live on KGW Channel 8, Portland’s NBC affiliate, from Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. Outgoing 2012 titleholder Nana Meriwether of Maryland will crown her successor out of 51 contestants representing all states — including Miss Oregon USA Gabrielle Neilan of Gresham — as well as the District of Columbia. The 2013 Miss USA will go on to represent the United States at the Miss Universe pageant.

Vote online: Go to to vote for Gresham native Gabrielle Neilan as your favorite contestant. The woman with the most votes will make it to the top 15.

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