NIU women's basketball team rallies behind teammate with cancer

Updated 1/14/2017 7:19 AM
  • Northern Illinois freshman guard Paulina Castro has gone from a fight for her career to a fight for her life. She recently discoverd that she has cancer and her teammates are showing support with purple hair bows and dye to shaved heads.

    Northern Illinois freshman guard Paulina Castro has gone from a fight for her career to a fight for her life. She recently discoverd that she has cancer and her teammates are showing support with purple hair bows and dye to shaved heads. Courtesy of Northern Illinois University

Who knew that a hip injury that required surgery would be the least of Paulina Castro's problems?

Castro, a freshman guard for the Northern Illinois women's basketball team and a native of Elgin, decided to redshirt this season in order to repair a labral tear that was discovered in her hip last summer.

She was set for surgery in mid-December when she inquired about a small lump on her clavicle that had become sore. Doctors thought it was an infection, and told Castro, a Harvest Christian graduate, that they needed to treat it and eradicate it before they could proceed with the hip surgery.

When the lump didn't go away, doctors looked closer. Just before the Huskies went on holiday break, they determined that Castro, 19, has Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system.

Castro's fight to save her career suddenly became a fight to save her life.

"Paulina is doing extremely well. From the beginning, she's been in the mindset of, 'This is what we're going to do to attack this,'" Northern Illinois coach Lisa Carlsen said. "She's just really tough and competitive. That's how she is as a player, and how she is as a person.

"She's not saying 'Why, why, why.' She's not talking about what-ifs. She is so positive. I couldn't be more proud of her approach."

Carlsen also couldn't be more proud of her players and coaches. They have shown Castro, who is still enrolled in classes at Northern Illinois, unwavering support.

"This is a team that is so tight," Carlsen said. "They really do love each other. And our players want Paulina to know that they're all in this fight with her together."

For last weekend's 88-80 Mid-American Conference win over Ohio, the first day that Castro's diagnosis became public, the Huskies wore shooting shirts with the words, "No one fights alone" on the front and the hashtag #PCStrong on the back.

They put purple shoelaces in their shoes. They also either wore purple bows in their hair or dyed their hair purple, or both. Purple is the color for Hodgkin's Lymphoma.

One teammate took her show of support a step further.

Senior guard Ally Lehman, one of the best players in the MAC and a team captain, was moved when Castro shaved her head in anticipation of the hair loss she would experience through chemotherapy.

So Lehman shaved her head, too, and donated her long blonde ponytail to a shampoo company that makes free wigs for young cancer patients. Assistant coach Kierra McCleary also shaved her head.

"Everyone wanted to do something to show Paulina that we've always got her back," Lehman said. "For me, it was an easy decision to shave my head. I can't go through the cancer part of it with her, but I thought that I could go through the hair part. I will do anything I can just to get someone to smile.

"Paulina told me that I looked really good with my new hair."

In fact, Lehman might keep her new look for a while. She might have to.

An ROTC student, Lehman will likely need to shave her head when she goes to ranger school after she graduates from Northern Illinois.

"My ROTC friends were commenting about my hair and told me that it's getting me ready (for military life)," Lehman said. "It's definitely easy to take care of. But it's already starting to grow back."

The Huskies are all hoping that Castro's hair grows back fast, too. She'll be undergoing chemotherapy treatments twice a week for the next six months.

In the meantime, Castro will attend as many team events as she can. The hope is that she will eventually be able to play again soon, too.

Carlsen is anxious for NIU fans to get to know Castro on the court. She believes the spunky guard, who averaged about 20 points per game as a senior in high school, will dazzle them.

"When we were recruiting Paulina, I really enjoyed watching her play," Carlsen said. "She could really score the basketball, and you could tell that she just really loves to play the game.

"She's a really good three-point shooter, but she can do everything. And at Harvest Christian, which is a smaller school, she often had to do it all for them. She was everything to them and I think she really relished that challenge. She was a great leader for them."

Now, Castro is a great inspiration for her teammates at Northern Illinois.

Last week, the underdog Huskies defeated an Ohio team that had won the last two MAC regular season titles. It was an emotional win for them in many ways.

"We talk all the time about playing for something bigger, whether you're playing for a teammate or the Lord," Carlsen said. "Our players are playing for Paulina, and I think anytime you play for something bigger, good things happen."

Great start: While there has been heartache off the court with the cancer diagnosis of teammate Paulina Castro, it's been a great start to the season for Northern Illinois on the court.

Second-year coach Lisa Carlsen has guided the Huskies to an 11-4 record and a 4-0 mark in the Mid-American Conference. It's the team's first 4-0 start in league play since the 1993-94 season.

Northern Illinois also ranks second in the country in scoring at 90.8 points per game.

On an individual level, senior guard Ally Lehman has been spectacular.

She ranks eighth in the country in assists (7.2 apg), and of the top 10 leaders in that category, she ranks first in scoring (17.2 ppg) and rebounding (10.8 rpg). Her 10.8 rebounds per game ranks 11th nationally overall.

Lehman has recorded two triple-doubles this season and poured in a MAC record-tying 48 points in a nonconference win over Milwaukee. In that game, she also pulled down a whopping 21 rebounds. Lehman's 40-20 performance is just the fourth such effort in NCAA Division I since the 2009-10 season.

Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw

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