When Sarah White learned in October 2015 that her breast cancer had returned – and had spread to the chest wall, spine and lungs, making it now stage IV – she thought of everything she still wanted to accomplish.
“When I heard ‘stage IV, it’s in your lungs,’ I immediately started thinking, ‘I’ve got to do the things I’ve always wanted to do,’ ” White, 36, tells PEOPLE.
Knowing she had a difficult road ahead – the mom of two had already gone through a double mastectomy and reconstruction, chemotherapy and radiation during her first cancer treatment, and was now in a clinical trial for a new drug – she was feeling really down.
“A friend of mine saw me sinking into this depression of, ‘I’m going to die, I’m not going to live to see my children grow up.’ And she told me, you need to get out, you need to do something for you and you need to find you again,” White recalls.
Given White’s background in pageants – she competed in Miss Teen West Virginia USA as a high school student – her friend suggested she enter an all-ages pageant.
Not only did the challenge appeal to her as a way to take her mind off cancer, but White realized she would have a platform as a pageant contestant to spread the importance of self-checks – which is how White found both of her breast cancer lumps – and early detection for breast cancer prevention.
After competing in a small contest for practice, White entered the Miss All-Star United States Pageant in April, and won the title of Miss West Virginia for the Mrs. division.
“It was a shock, like, did this really happen?” White says of winning. “Because when I started the journey towards Miss West Virginia, it was just something to focus on. Win or lose, I was just going to do it. If I lose, I lose. It was just something to get me out of the funk. But something good has obviously come out of it.”
As the winner, White is spending her year with the crown working in her community in Huntington, WV to spread the word about early detection, and volunteering with the American Cancer Society’s “Look Good Feel Better” program.
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“I teach cancer patients – not just women going through breast cancer treatment – how to draw their eyebrows on, and tie their scarves, and feel good about themselves when they’re going through treatment,” she says.
And as Miss West Virginia, White went down to Savannah, GA, for the national competition in July. While she enjoyed it, she says there are no plans to enter future pageants.
“It was an experience I’ll never forget, but I think I’m still recouping,” White says. “As much as I loved it, I think once I give my title away in April, I’m just going to be wife and mom and cancer patient. It was a lot of time away from my kids, and now that I found myself again I need to be with them, because they come first.”