When Sandra Zacharias first had the idea of entering a pageant in the fall of 2011, she initially shrugged it off.
She had recently battled breast cancer and was just starting to get her hair back.
“I started chuckling,” she said. “But then I thought, yes, I can do this.”
On May 18, she was named Mrs. Indiana America 2013, and in August, she will go to Arizona to compete in the Mrs. America pageant. Zacharias believes she is the first woman who has had a double mastectomy to be crowned Mrs. Indiana America and the first to compete in the national Mrs. America pageant.
The annual Mrs. America pageant began in 1977, although an earlier version of the concept debuted in 1938 focusing on homemaking abilities. Today's Mrs. America contestants are rated on their ability to be articulate, poised and versatile in many environments.
While less well-known than its Miss America counterpart, the Mrs. America pageant is a major event within the pageant community.
The pageant attracts women from all walks of life in many different age ranges, and as such is host to many different competitors from varied cultures, communities and situations. In 2004, Mrs. Rhode Island competed in the national competition while pregnant with twins.
Should Zacharias win at the national level, she will go on to compete in the Mrs. World competition, also held annually. Two Hoosier women have previously won the title and gone on to the international level, in 1991 and 2001.
Zacharias was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2010 after feeling a lump in her breast. During the next year, she went through aggressive chemo and radiation, had a double mastectomy and had her ovaries removed.
Recently, actress Angelina Jolie raised awareness for women's cancer issues by revealing that she herself had undergone a voluntary double mastectomy with plans for an oophorectomy (a surgery to remove the ovaries) in the near future.
Although Jolie had not yet been diagnosed with cancer, she had tested positive for a gene that dramatically increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancer in women, and decided to take radical steps to combat its potential.
When Zacharias was diagnosed, she learned that hers was a rare form of cancer.
“There was a one percent chance I could’ve gotten this type of cancer, and I got it,” said Zacharias, who will turn 50 this fall.
As she recovered, preparing for the pageant became a good project for her to work on with her two daughters, Samantha, now 20, and Shoshana, now 16.
Samantha helped her with her paperwork and applications, and Shoshana helped her pick out her costume and her dress. Shoshana also competes in pageants, having participated in the Miss Indiana Teen pageant in 2013.
Her daughters, along with her husband, Joseph, kept her strong through the cancer, she said.
“My husband was my absolute rock from the very moment I was diagnosed,” she said. “He stepped up and took care of our house, and he was my caretaker. This cancer didn’t just affect me, it affected everybody.”
She believes serving as Mrs. Indiana America will help her promote cancer awareness and the charities associated with it.
“I’ve always wanted to give back, and to be able to touch people’s lives in simple ways,” she said.
Zacharias also said she wants others to be inspired by her story and what she went through.
“I want people to be inspired to not give up, and to be encouraged,” she said. “You’re beautiful no matter what. Beauty is on the inside, not the outside.”