Jessica Breland ready to return
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Jessica Breland doesn't mind the prodding questions about her health. The North Carolina forward is getting comfortable taking a front-and-center position in the fight against cancer.
Back on the basketball court 1½ years after being diagnosed with the disease, she wants others to find hope in her comeback story.
"A lot of people wouldn't want to kind of put their business out there, probably, but I think it's for a good cause," Breland said Tuesday. "Every time I talk to someone about the cancer stuff, I can just tell that their spirits are uplifted -- especially young kids.
"I get something back in return from it, because I experienced it," she added. "It's like a bond between me and people with cancer, because we've been through it, or we're going through it."
Breland proclaimed herself 100 percent healthy after missing last season while she fought Hodgkin's lymphoma. She said the disease is in remission and doctors told her she won't be considered fully cancer-free until five years have passed since her final treatment.
But in some ways, coach Sylvia Hatchell said, Breland is stronger physically than she was before her May 2009 diagnosis, though she still has difficulty catching her breath during practice. That's partly because her lungs may have been damaged by chemotherapy treatments and partly, Breland joked, because of the up-tempo system her coach preaches.
"I'm sure I could go anywhere else and play and be in good shape for practice, but for our practice, it's not quite there," Breland said with a smile. "Some of the [other] girls would be winded, too."
When Breland was cleared to resume practice in late February, she discovered she couldn't move as quickly as she did when she averaged 8.5 rebounds in 2008-09 while leading the Atlantic Coast Conference with 3.1 blocks per game.
But one thing never left: Her shooting touch. That's encouraging news for someone who averaged 14 points that year.
"Not talent -- you can't lose talent," Breland said. "When I first got back on the court, it was kind of slow -- I was telling my foot to go right, my foot to go left. ... It was slow reaction. But now, working with [assistant coach and former star player Charlotte Smith], everything is back."
That Breland is back on the court at all is remarkable, but she seems determined to make up for lost time.
"There's no doubt," Hatchell said. "This is her team."
Breland redshirted last year and called it "kind of depressing" to watch helplessly during a decidedly un-Carolina-like season in which the Tar Heels finished 19-12, endured a five-game losing streak, finished under .500 in league play for the first time since 2001 and went one-and-done in both the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
And while that can't even begin to compare to the rigors of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, it did give Breland plenty of motivation to come back strong.
"I respect her so much, her leadership and all. She wants to have a great senior year. She wants to win," Hatchell said. "She told me, 'Look, I don't really care that much about my teammates being my friends. I want them to respect me, and I want to win.' So they do respect her tremendously for what she's been through. She's out there leading by example every day."
Said Breland: "The main thing that we were lacking last year was leadership. I felt like no one wanted to step up or felt like they could step up and lead this team, and I felt like I was the perfect person to do that."
Now she hopes others follow her lead -- both on the court and well outside the lines.
The school recently created the Jessica Breland Comeback Kids Fund to support the university's pediatric oncology program and next month will launch the effort with a gala dinner with broadcaster -- and cancer survivor -- Robin Roberts. Hatchell said a video will be shown that "will bring tears to your eyes" and added that Breland's comeback story "could be one of the greatest stories ever, especially in women's basketball."
After a year that tested the Tar Heels' faith and perseverance, Hatchell sounds confident that Breland's story will have a happy ending after all.
"Jessica not being on the floor was hard, but just every day, when a team goes through a kid having cancer, taking chemo and all -- no matter what you do to try to have the sun come out, the black cloud is still there," Hatchell said. "But, you know what? The sun's out. It's probably shining brighter than it's ever shined before, and I think it's going to continue to get brighter and brighter."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press