FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – Chesney Monroe Berzins’ journey started with something others cannot see.

“It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter what you look like. What matters is how you feel on the inside,” she says.

In 2015, she learned she was positive for gastric cancer, at 23 years old. A genetic mutation that runs in her family also puts her at risk for breast cancer.

Chemotherapy and radiation were not options for treatment, because of how her cancer was growing. Doctors gave Chesney one choice.

“I was the first person in my family to have my stomach removed,” she explains.

Chesney Monroe Berzins (CBS 11)

Recovery was hard. Wellness and nutrition became critical to Chesney’s health.

“There were several times when I was very close to death. I was hospitalized two or three times because of malnutrition and complications,” she says, explaining that many people do not know it is possible to live without a stomach.

To adjust, exercise became important for strength. It’s up to her to do the work her stomach would normally do: which means eating frequent, small portions of healthy foods and chewing thoroughly so her small intestines can process the nutrition.

The increased risk for breast cancer that she and the women in her family face also means she’ll need a double mastectomy in the next few years.

She credits her husband with helping her stay focused and turn her life around. Hoping her story could encourage just one other person facing adversity, Chesney decided to compete for the title of Mrs. Texas.

Representing Fort Worth, she took home the crown in 2018.

“It was one of the most amazing moments of my life. I won’t ever forget it,” Berzins says.

Her platform carried her from Mrs. Texas, to the Mrs. America pageant where Chesney placed in the top six.

She evolved her message for the national stage, speaking on behalf of people with different abilities. “We’re All Mammals,” was inspired by her nieces who also live with different abilities.

Since the competition, Chesney has continued public speaking, and talks to school children about the importance of inclusivity. She’s working to make We’re All Mammals an official non-profit organization.

This spring, she’ll hand off her crown to another woman but will continue to be a voice for good. Beauty, she says, is more than skin deep.

“Not many people know that I am sick. Just because I am different, doesn’t mean that I am any less,” Chesney says.

Jennifer Lindgren