Paulina Castro has gone through more than your normal 18-year old, both on and off the basketball court.
But you wouldn't know it by talking to her.
Castro is a Harvest Christian Academy graduate and a freshman at Northern Illinois University, which she attends on a basketball scholarship.
After transferring from state power Montini, she spent the previous two seasons as the catalyst for a Lions' team that advanced to the Class 1A Elite Eight each year. Her flashy style of play, quickness and scoring ability landed her several Division I offers. With NIU being so close to home, it was a no-brainer to become a Huskie.
But Castro's debut at the Convocation Center has been delayed because she has cancer. Hodgkin's lymphoma. It's hard to type those words when writing about an 18-year old with the personality and moxie of a Paulina Castro.
Friday night, Harvest held a #pcstrong Night and the support was overwhelming. Castro's NIU coach, Lisa Carlsen, and all of her Huskie teammates and coaches were in attendance. Mac Irvin, Paulina's AAU coach, along with his wife and Larkin grad Corry Irvin, the Whitney Young coach, came from the city and met Corry's dad, Deryl Carter, at the game. The stands were packed with everyone, including opponent Alden-Hebron, wearing purple #pcstrong T-shirts.
Paulina was there, too, and just hours after her fourth (out of 12) chemotherapy treatment, which is a testament to how strong this young lady truly is.
"I'm pretty good," said Castro, whose next scan will be Feb. 15 to see if the treatments are eradicating the cancer. "I haven't had any major symptoms. A few days after treatment are kind of sluggish but I'm pretty good."
The cancer diagnosis came completely out of the blue. In July she had a labral tear in her hip and was preparing for surgery but about a week before the surgery she had some lymph node swelling and further testing revealed the Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system.
"I was very shocked and very surprised," Paulina said. "But the biggest thing I've learned is the only way to attack this is head on. I'm just super grateful for my teammates and coaches at NIU and everyone here at Harvest. My teammate Ally Lehman shaved her head and so did our assistant coach (Kierra McCleary). Things like that are huge. I've never been on a team with better chemistry and I've never been around so much support on and off the court. It's amazing."
Paulina's dad, Pablo, is an assistant coach at Harvest Christian and he, too, has been overwhelmed by the support his entire family has received. It's not their first bout with cancer -- Pablo's mom, Elvira, just completed treatment for breast cancer and Pablo's wife and Paulina's mom, Elisa, has gone through treatment for autoimmune disease the past two years.
"The one thing is we've been fortunate to have awesome support from Harvest Christian," Pablo said. "(Athletic director) Dave Lockwood and (head girls basketball coach) Rich DeTamble set all this up tonight and it's just a great family. I can't say enough about everyone here at Harvest and coach Carlsen and everyone at NIU. It hasn't been about basketball, it's been about family."
But basketball is still very much a part of Paulina's life. She comes home to Elgin every other weekend for treatments but other than that she's trying to be a normal college freshman -- and a basketball player who took a redshirt year but fully intends to be back on the court next season. She's training with the Huskies, albeit in modified style, and is every bit a part of the NIU team as if she was coming back from a knee injury and not cancer. In fact, on Saturday NIU is hosting 75-plus people from the Harvest Christian community when the Huskies, who are 8-1 in the MAC, take on Western Michigan.
"I don't remember a time I didn't have a basketball in my hands," said Paulina, who scored 1,432 points in her high school career. "The biggest thing for me is staying active. I have to do everything I can to be ready for next season."
And with not a moment of, "Why me?" interfering.
"I can't say I have thought that at all," she said. "Yes, I was shocked. Yes, I was surprised. I didn't know how to handle it at first. But I am a Christian. Before any of this happened, my mom and dad always said that everything happens for a reason. I look at it as a bump in the road and I just have to get over it. I won't say cancer doesn't suck. It does suck. It just depends on how you go about it."
And after seeing Paulina Castro Friday night, I can tell you she's going about it with every intention of beating it and being on the basketball court for NIU next season.
The bet here is that's exactly what's going to happen.