Basketball vs. Cancer: Paulina Castro finds her fight on the court

By Eddie Garcia

DeKALB — Redshirt freshman guard Paulina Castro set on an unexpected journey in December of 2016 when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer that attacks the immune system.

News of this caliber is not easy for anyone to receive, but Castro’s positive mentality, along with encouragement from her family, teammates and coaches, made her journey inspirational to everyone who knows her story.

Castro said no one ever expects to receive life-threatening news, but the process taught her a lot about life.

“I think the whole process taught me a lot, especially about my teammates and my family that I have here at NIU,” Castro said. “There is no way that I could have made it through that without them.”

Castro admitted her return was challenging, as she wasn’t able to just get back on the court.

However, she never lost sight of her end goal and maintained her determination to get through it all to return to the game she loves.

“Coming to basketball practice, it was like a must, like I wanted to,” Castro said. “It was an escape. It was a solid two hours on the court with my teammates, with my coaches, and I could just forget about the doctors, the cancer [and] the treatment. My whole mind was basketball.”

Castro would usually have her chemotherapy treatments on Fridays and still found the strength to attend almost every Saturday game this past season with a smile on her face.

Head Coach Lisa Carlsen said Castro’s ability to stay connected with the team and continue a life of a normal student-athlete helped her along the way.

“For her being able to come to games, come to practices and being as much a part of the team as possible, I think that was a good distraction for her,” Carlsen said. “Even when things weren’t great, she’s somebody who showed up to practice with a smile on her face.”

Last season, Castro’s teammates showed their support by wearing purple nail polish, purple ribbons and dying their hair purple to represent the fight against Hodgkin’s lymphoma. They even created a hashtag ‘#PCStrong’ on social media in support of the freshman guard.

Less than a year later, her teammates and fans were able to cheer for her from the sidelines as she played in the first exhibition game against Benedictine University Nov 4.

Not only did she play, but a few moments after checking in, she hit her first shot and the first 3-point field goal of her college career. Everyone in the Convocation Center erupted, especially her teammates.

“It felt awesome,” Castro said. “I think everyone on the team knows their role, and if I catch it on the wing and I’m open, I am going to shoot it, and that’s what I did, and it went in.”

The story gets better as Castro was named a starter in the season opener against Eastern Illinois University Nov. 10.

She played 10 minutes in the game, and she recorded her first collegiate career rebound and assist.

“[Paulina] is inspirational,” junior guard Mikayla Voigt said as she tried to hold back tears. “The fact that she was able to keep such a positive attitude through all of that and still be such a big supporter for the team and then come back to be healthy again and able to play basketball, it’s truly a miracle. I mean I don’t think it’s anything short of that.”

Castro continues to maintain a positive attitude, as she is now contributing both on and off the court. Carlsen said Castro taught her and the entire team a life lesson during her journey.

“It gets better,” said Castro. “You know there are days when you feel like ‘wow, this sucks’, but it gets better and that is something that I learned. You learn to appreciate even the smallest of things when you don’t know how the next day is going to go. I think that is why basketball was such an escape for me was because I just learned to appreciate it so much more.”