Florida cancer patient turns into world's most inspiring Cover Girl

Staff writer Andrea Torres chronicles her breast cancer experiences in Tropical Life every other Tuesday. Read past columns at MiamiHerald.com/health.

10/22/2012 1:00 PM

10/22/2012 4:23 PM

A 13-year-old cancer patient and self-taught makeup artist named Talia Joy Castellano has become an inspiration.

The Orlando teen, who is a spokesperson for the Central Florida Blood Center, films and edits tutorials for a YouTube VLog that has attracted 19 million views. Television talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres took notice of the pretty girl, and got her a deal with the global cosmetic brand Cover Girl in September.

Talia’s journey with cancer began in 2007. She was 7 when she was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a cancerous tumor that develops from nerve tissue. It started in her adrenal gland and spread to her chest.

After a friend of her mother’s showed her how to use foundation, concealer and blush to disguise her sickly skin color and the dark dark circles under her eyes, she turned herself into a makeup guru. She applies fake eyelashes like a professional.

"I don’t like wearing wigs so I wear makeup to feel good and pretty inside — and I guess outside," she says on YouTube.

From her bed at the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando, the teen has pushed me to wear makeup and walk in a fashion show in Wynwood Saturday to raise money for a nonprofit organization that helps cancer patients in Broward.

The side effects from breast-cancer treatment magnified my insecurities. My hair is growing and I’m slowly losing weigh, but I still want to hide. Not this seventh-grader. The world is watching her.

The past five years have been a roller-coaster ride for Talia. There is no cure for her cancer, but she has benefitted from a new generation of drugs that control it temporarily. She has been in and out of treatment, which has included chemotherapy, radiation and several surgeries.

In 2008, doctors found cancer in a lymph node near her heart. After treatment, she enjoyed a healthy two years until 2010 when the cancer returned to a lymph node behind her pancreas. In 2011, the cancer made it to lymph nodes near her trachea, clavicle and other soft tissue.

In August, she found out she had pre-leukemia, a cancer of the blood or bone marrow.

"I’m a very strong person when it comes to dealing with what I’m being told,” she says in a YouTube video. “But, basically there are not really a lot of options for treatment anymore."

On Oct. 11, she uploaded a video to tell her fans that a clinical trial had shrunk the tumors by 75 percent and that there were no signs of pre-leukemia and neuroblastoma in her bone marrow. She was happy.

“Obviously they couldn’t find it in that one bone, which basically means that it’s gone, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t be any where else in my body,” she said. “But we are not thinking that it is, because we are staying positive.”

Doctors have learned that just because a cancer disappears on a body scan or is undetectable in a blood test, it isn’t necessarily gone for good. A dormant, self-renewing super cell known as a cancer stem cell is to blame for the regeneration of tumors after treatment. Studies have shown that some of these cells can develop resistance to cancer drugs.

I will be watching Talia on YouTube. She is wise beyond her years. She knows the importance of accepting one’s situation and making the best of it.

I thought about her on Saturday. I walked the runway and felt a rush of joy. I raised my arm in a sign of victory in front of the cameras. I smiled. For a moment, I forgot about my fear of a cancerous tumor coming back. I am alive now, I thought, and that is all that matters.

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