While Desiree Castellano plans her daughter Talia Joy’s 13th birthday party, the 12-year-old hangs out in the family’s Florida home, posting videos to her YouTube page. At such a young age, she’s already a total pro at makeup application, teaching her more than 130,000 subscribers how to take their eye shadows from day to night and why blue is an awesome color to wear.
But Talia isn’t your typical preteen: she’s currently battling two forms of cancer at once. Options for treatment are running low. But the soon-to-be-birthday-girl (the big day is Aug. 18) is unfailingly upbeat.
“I’ve always been a really bubbly girl, and my mom always tells me to think about the positive,” she tells PEOPLE. “Even though cancer is a negative, horrible thing, there are positives. For people to see that there are kids that get cancer … it’s just a true fact. Me putting a face on it makes a difference.”
A Simple Start
Talia first started her video series to talk about cancer (she was initially diagnosed more than five years ago). “She said to me, ‘I don’t know what I want to do, where this is going to go, I just want to talk about cancer,'” Desiree recalls to PEOPLE. “That was her first video. But from there, it just took off.”
As for choosing makeup as a focus, “I’ve always been interested in makeup,” Talia says. “I think when I first got diagnosed when I was 7, my mom’s friend … she also had cancer. I went over to her house, she did my makeup, and ever since then I was like, ‘This stuff is really cool.'”
Now, Talia — who prefers to go hairless — uses the slogan “Makeup Is My Wig.” “I put on this makeup to feel better about myself, and every time I put it on, I don’t need a wig,” she explains. “The doctors said to let her do what she wants, let her feel good about herself,” Desiree adds. “And it makes her feel pretty. She thinks people aren’t looking at her because she’s bald, but are looking at her beautiful face.”
Creating the videos is a great distraction for Talia, too. “Sometimes when I’m just not feeling good, I’ll sit down and do a makeup video,” she says. “Once I start talking in front of the camera, everything just leaves my mind. It feels like I’m talking to the world. I know there are going to be people listening, and think, ‘This girl wants to make a difference.'”
Reading comments helps, too. “I try to read all of them,” Talia shares. “But I tell people, just because I don’t reply doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate every single one of them.”
Talia’s first diagnosis — stage 4 neuroblastoma — came in February of 2007. She was cancer-free for 13 months, but relapsed in September of 2008, August 2010 and again in April 2011. And on Aug. 6, 2012, the worst news yet came: Talia’s cancer had spread to her bones, and she’d developed pre-leukemia.
“I knew that there was a possibility of pre-leukemia down the road, but I never, ever thought that she could get it at the same time as neuroblastoma,” Desiree says. “The doctors down here had seen it once, and other doctors have never seen it happen. So being told that she had pre-leukemia was like getting hit as hard as the first time they told me she had cancer.”
Though there are a few options left for Talia — namely, a bone marrow transplant — she’s leaning toward peacefully living out the rest of her life, which could be anywhere from a few months to one year.
“I’m happy that she’s happy, and I will support whatever decision she makes,” Desiree says, adding that Talia’s whole family has undergone bone marrow testing, and is still exploring options. “I believe in miracles, though, so if everyone can pray for her, that would be wonderful.”
For now, Talia will continue posting her videos — a recent announcement of her latest diagnosis has received more than 450,000 views; a chat about her May beauty favorites has 770,000 and a glittery New Year’s Eve tutorial has nearly 670,000. She’ll also attend school when she can and attempt to get Ellen DeGeneres‘s attention (she’s a huge fan of the show). And maybe she’ll reflect on the mark she’s made.
“I didn’t realize that I could do what I’m doing now, and what it would become,” she says of her videos. “I wasn’t expecting anything. But it makes me feel better to know people watch me, care about me and think I’m inspiring.”