Through his darkest days, Monroe County student-athlete finds hope in faith

By Matthew Young, RealWV

There are moments in life that make time stop. The birth of a child, the death of a loved one, a smile on the face of your greatest love. And, from time to time, the moment that makes time stop is the one that reveals an elusive diagnosis…

Such was the case for 21-year-old Xander Castillo.

“I was playing football at West Virginia Wesleyan College,” Castillo told The RealWV. “I was in my junior year. I’ve always been a healthy guy, and never had any issues with any type of sicknesses. I’ve rarely ever even gotten a cold – but I noticed, last fall, that I had started to lose weight.”

Xander Castillo is a red-shirted wide receiver for the West Virginia Wesleyan Bobcats.

At a fit 170 pounds, the unexpected weight loss came as a surprise to the James Monroe alum. More surprising, however, were the physical irregularities that accompanied the sudden loss of body mass. 

The weight loss brought with it both night sweats, and severe heartburn. These conditions persisted for several months, worsening as autumn gave way to winter. 

“I became really sick on December 11,” Castillo said. “There was something going on that we (Castillo and family) couldn’t get figured out. My skin was changing color – I started to turn yellow, and my eyes turned yellow. I also completely lost my appetite. So we went to the doctor and did some bloodwork. All of my liver functions came back elevated to the point that they rushed me to the emergency room.”

Castillo spent the next six days as a guest of Princeton Community Hospital, where he underwent both a liver biopsy, and stent placement. Unfortunately, by the end of his stay, neither answers nor improvements had presented themselves. Although still struggling with the symptoms which had prompted him to seek treatment, Castillo was released from the hospital’s care on Christmas Eve. 

Xander, along with his father, Howie, sister, Marley, and brother, Lon. Not pictured is Xander’s older sister, Lakyn.

“During that whole week I was in the hospital, I lost probably 10 pounds,” Castillo noted, adding that by December, his weight had decreased to just 150 pounds. “I returned to the doctor a week later, and my blood work just continued to get worse. There was no improvement happening with anything.”

Samples from Castillo’s biopsy were sent to Duke University in North Carolina for further study, but the findings remained inconclusive. It was at this point that Castillo recalls beginning to lose hope.

“I have a very strong faith and relationship with God,” Castillo said. “Throughout that whole time, I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to put my trust in you (God). I know you’ll give me my comfort when I need it. I’ll get through this time, and we’ll make it through together.’”

“So I put my trust in God,” Castillo added.

Xanderm with his mother, Lori.

Within days, Castillo was told that he was in need of a liver transplant. Shortly thereafter – and still without a definitive treatment plan – he was admitted to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, where he would spend another four days. Castillo rang in 2023 from a hospital bed, hundreds of miles from home. By the time of his discharge, the University’s liver specialists had become just as uncertain as the previous doctors had.

“Everybody was stumped to the point that they were calling me ‘The Mystery Man’ at the hospital,” Castillo noted. “So I started school. My mental health was pretty bad through January and February, along with my physical health. Things were just not getting better.”

“I continued to put my faith in God,” Castillo further said. “It was really a time of just me and God going through this difficult journey in my life. I really didn’t reach out to anybody. There were a lot of times that my family wouldn’t know half the stuff that was going on because I didn’t want to worry them. So there were a few months when it was just me and God, and that was a good experience for me, as crazy as that sounds.”

After another six-day hospital stay in March spurred by a urinary-tract infection, Castillo discovered a swollen lump on the side of his neck. In spite of his now very understandable hospital-fatigue, he decided to meet with his doctors for yet another evaluation. An ultrasound revealed the formulation of a mass in his neck, necessitating an additional biopsy. 

“The biopsy on my neck came back inconclusive, so they needed to do more testing,” Castillo said. “They ended up cutting a piece of the mass out of my neck to see what was going on.”

Shortly thereafter came the moment in Xander Castillo’s life that made time stop.

“I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma on April 28,” Castillo said. “As crazy as it sounds, that’s been one of the biggest blessings to happen to me.”

Diagnosed with a treatable form of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Xander Castillo hopes to resume his studies at West Virginia Wesleyan College this fall.

At the time of his diagnosis, Castillo was mere days away from undergoing what would have ultimately been an unnecessary liver transplant. 

“Hodgkins is very treatable,” Castillo noted. “My doctors even think that with that treatment, it will fix the condition that my liver is in.”

Castillo now plans on resuming his studies at the beginning of the fall semester. And equally as exciting for the lifelong athlete, Castillo believes that his best days as a Bobcat wide receiver may still lay ahead. 

“Currently my status is that I start treatment on Friday,” Castillo added. “May 19 will be my first treatment day. I’m doing immunotherapy because chemotherapy is too strong for the condition that my liver is in right now.”

With the support of his family and loved ones, and the faith he has in his relationship with God, Castillo once again feels blessed by his highly-optimistic prognosis. 

“I just had to get through those first few months, and then I was comforted and saw all the blessings that come from God,” Castillo said. “It’s definitely been a good experience, and I’m thankful for it.”

There are moments in life that make time stop, and I’m really grateful that I got to spend a few of them talking to a brave young guy named Xander Castillo. 

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