Miss Oregon USA Gabrielle Neilan
Darren Decker/Miss USA 2013
06/13/2013 at 12:00 PM EDT
In a world where imperfections stick out like sore thumbs, Gabrielle Neilan isn't hiding hers. In fact, she's embracing the subtle scar on her neck.
"It's my strength," she says, before joking, "You can hardly notice it. It's like a fat roll on my neck."
The fact that Neilan, 22, can be so humorous about it is refreshing. It's also shocking, considering she is one of 51 women competing in Las Vegas this weekend in the Miss USA pageant
Besting the other women is a tall task, of course, but the brunette beauty has been through worse. It wasn't long ago her Miss Oregon USA sash was replaced with a hospital gown and her stage was replaced with an operating table.
Recalling that fateful October day, Neilan said, "I woke up with a lump on my throat. It hurt so bad. It felt like I was swallowing an apple every time I was swallowing."
After several trips to the doctor, cancer was discovered in her thyroid. Although she needed surgery quickly to remove the organ in her neck, Neilan would not let it affect her pageant dreams, and the Miss Oregon USA pageant was only two weeks after the operation.
"It's hard because you go through something like that and then you think of the little things in life and you realize they're not really that big a deal, so don't stress on it," she told PEOPLE. "It's been rough, honestly, the whole journey getting here. I went through two surgeries before my state pageant. Then in January I went through radiation. It's been up and down but I'm finding the positive at the end of the day."
Her optimism is paying off. Just two weeks ago, Neilan found out her cancer is in remission. "The timing is perfect," she said.
"Perfect." An interesting word. The quintessential word in the pageant world. But, it's Neilan's imperfection and perseverance that may gain her the Miss USA crown.
Miss USA airs live Sunday from Las Vegas
on NBC at 9 pm ET, hosted by E!'s Giuliana Rancic and Nick Jonas.