A year ago, NIU guard was fighting for her life. Now she's starting
For seven straight games in January, Paulina Castro was the starting point guard for the Northern Illinois women's basketball team.
One year earlier, in January 2017, Castro was fighting for her life.
Yep, just one year ago, Castro was receiving chemotherapy treatments every other week, and losing her hair.
"The last 12 months have been ... I would say, challenging," Castro said. "And definitely a roller coaster."
Castro, who starred at Harvest Christian High School in Elgin as a 3-point sniper, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system, just before Christmas 2016.
Not only did that make Castro wonder what that meant for her basketball future, she wondered, of course, what that meant for her life.
"I was faced with things I never thought I would be face with," Castro said. "I had no idea what Hodgkin lymphoma was. I was really nervous. It was so scary to get that kind of news."
So, being a starter on a Division I basketball team a mere 12 months later was certainly not on her radar in the wake of her diagnosis. Not even close.
And yet, that's exactly what happened to the 20-year-old Castro, a redshirt freshman who is now cancer-free, growing back a thick, wavy mane of brown hair and playing with much of the spunk and energy that defined her high school career.
Eight months removed from her final chemotherapy treatment in May 2017, she has now started 8 of 17 games for the Huskies this season and is averaging 3 points and 15 minutes of playing time per game.
"If you asked me last year if I would be starting by this year, I would have said, 'Are you crazy, do you see what I'm dealing with right now,'" Castro said with a laugh. "It's crazy how this has played out. I wanted to play basketball again, of course. Basketball has been my life. But I never thought it would happen like this. I never thought I'd be at this point in just a year."
Castro says that she has a long way to go before she gets back to being the same kind of player who dropped in more than 20 points per game in high school with relative ease. But she is a firm believer that the reason she made such a quick recovery is that she tried to stay active during her treatment.
"There were days that I just wanted to stay in bed, but my Mom and Dad would say, 'Let's just go walk around a bit, let's go to the store, anything to get me moving.
"I think that really helped. I've heard that if you stay in bed through chemo, you almost feel sicker. I tried to exercise and to be moving as much as possible, and I kept up a full schedule at school."
Castro also kept going to basketball practice, even participating in noncontact drills as much as she could tolerate. She said her spirits were constantly lifted by loving teammates and coaches, some of whom even shaved their heads to show their support of her.
"As a girl, you love your hair. It was really hard to lose it," Castro said. "It was so bold for people to be like, 'Paulina, we're going to buzz our hair for you. My Mom did it too. That was such a loud show of support. I so appreciated that."
As Castro's hair slowly grew back, so did the list of activities she was allowed to do.
And by last summer, Castro was given full clearance by her doctors to resume all normal basketball workouts. She is considered fully healthy, but is still expected to get regular scans, checkups and blood work tests.
"I'm so lucky," Castro said. "My body responded so well to the treatment. Coming back last summer was still tough, though. I was weak and out of shape. I had lost a lot of strength.
"Even now, my body isn't the way it used to be. But I am starting to get comfortable again. It took me some time to get to the point where I wasn't overthinking everything."
Castro's best game of the season was the Eastern Michigan game on Jan. 20 in which she had 14 points on four 3-pointers.
She remembers nearly every detail from that game. Then again, that's how it is for her with pretty much every game now.
"One of the biggest lessons I've learned in the last year is to be grateful for what you have and not take any of it for granted," Castro said. "I'm going to be honest, that's definitely changed for me. I wasn't always like that.
"I really learned to appreciate my life day-by-day, and to be happy in the moment."
Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw