Elgin native Paulina Castro puts it all together for healthiest season at NIU
Her thick brown hair is long and flowing again.
Paulina Castro can wear her hair in a ponytail, a bun atop her head, or a braid down her back. Whatever she wants.
Castro's hair, just like her health and her luck on the basketball court, has come a long way in the last few years.
"It was really hard with my hair," Castro said. "I wore a lot of hats and beanies and caps when my hair was in that awkward phase of falling out and growing back. I was definitely embarrassed."
Castro, an Elgin native and Harvest Christian graduate who is now a fifth-year senior on the Northern Illinois women's basketball team, was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma in December of 2016, during her freshman year in DeKalb.
She shaved her head, as did some of her teammates and coaches in a show of support.
"I felt like something was up because I was all swollen around my clavicle, to the point where I couldn't even lift my arms up," said Castro, whose doctors later discovered a huge mass in her chest near her heart. "I remember finding out like it was yesterday. I was in the car with my parents and I had had a bunch of scans and biopsies, and we were going to another doctor. That's when they told me that the doctors had told them it might be lymphoma. And I was like, 'What's that?'
"When they told me it was a type of cancer, I just started balling my eyes out. I was a wreck."
It's nearly five years later, and Castro has not only grown her hair, gotten through months of chemotherapy treatments and regained her strength, she's also powered through a foot injury, a scare that her cancer had returned and a serious back injury that kept her sidelined for most of last season.
Somehow, this strange COVID-19-challenged season has been the best season Castro could hope for, because it's been the first season of her college career that Castro has felt truly healthy and more like herself again from top to bottom.
Castro, once unsure that she would ever play basketball again, is now a starter for the Huskies, and has been all season. She hasn't missed a game. She averages 7.2 points and 26 minutes per game and her 43 3-pointers are second-most on the team. On Wednesday, in the Huskies' final home game of the season, Castro tied her career-high with 15 points, on five 3-pointers, against Eastern Michigan.
"I definitely used to question what I'd be able to do and where I'd be," Castro said of her dark days getting through cancer treatments. "I had goals for myself, but I would wonder if I could get there or if they were realistic. I just had so much going on with my health and then with all the injuries.
"But things just kind of fell into place this year."
Castro says that the best thing for her back injury, which included two bulging discs, was the quarantine of last spring.
"I did not workout at all, like nothing," Castro said. "I'm pretty stubborn when it comes to basketball. I always kind of feel like I should be doing something, even when I probably shouldn't. But during that quarantine, I completely rested, did nothing for like 45 straight days except for the physical therapy exercises I was supposed to be doing for my back.
"It was the best thing I could have done for my body."
As Castro improved, her new worry last summer was that COVID-19 would put the kibosh on her senior season.
"There was so much up in the air, it was so stressful," Castro said. "Especially knowing how good I felt. I finally felt healthy. I was ready to go and excited. I didn't want to think about not being able to have a season because I had put myself in the best position to play."
It all worked out for Castro and Northern Illinois, which never had to miss a game due to its own pause or shutdown. The Huskies stayed healthy all season, and so did Castro.
"My biggest challenge will always be to stay healthy," Castro said. "This season has just felt so good, being able to feel like myself, to not have to worry about my health or injuries, or anything physical holding me back. After one game, I remember coach (Lisa Carlsen) walking past me and she was smiling and she said, 'Ever think you'd be playing 30 minutes?' Ya, that was pretty cool. I've been wanting to do this for so long."
And Castro's going to get to do so for even longer.
Because of COVID-19, the NCAA is allowing seniors to return to campus for an extra season of eligibility next school year.
Castro, who graduated in December with a degree in kinesiology and is already in the midst of getting her master's degree in digital marketing, is going to take it.
She'll be a rare sixth-year senior.
"Obviously, I need to get better in a lot of different things and I'll work in the off-season to do that," said Castro, who would like to coach basketball at the college level someday. "But I was able to have some success this season, after everything that has happened. I don't (want that to end). I want to build off of that."
• Twitter: @babcockmcgraw