UNCs Breland focused on hoops|Heels forward ready to return after cancer fight
Published 11:53 pm Wednesday, October 20, 2010
By By JOEDY McCREARY, AP Sports Writer
CHAPEL HILL Jessica Breland doesnt 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 1 1/2 years after being diagnosed with disease, she wants others to find hope in her comeback story.
A lot of people wouldnt want to kind of put their business out there, probably, but I think its 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. Its like a bond between me and people with cancer, because weve been through it, or were going through it.
Breland proclaimed herself 100 percent healthy after missing last season while she fought Hodgkins lymphoma. She said the disease is in remission and doctors told her she wont 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. Thats partly because her lungs may have been damaged by chemotherapy treatments, and partly, Breland joked, because of the up-tempo system her coach preaches.
Im sure I could go anywhere else and play and be in good shape for practice, but for our practice, its 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 couldnt move as quickly as she did when she averaged 8 1/2 rebounds in 2008-09 while leading the Atlantic Coast Conference with 3.1 blocks per game.
But one thing never left: Her shooting touch. Thats encouraging news for someone who averaged 14 points that year.
Not talent you cant 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.
Theres 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 cant 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 dont 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 shes been through. Shes 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 universitys 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 Brelands comeback story could be one of the greatest stories ever, especially in womens basketball.
After a year that tested the Tar Heels faith and perseverance, Hatchell sounds confident that Brelands 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 suns out. Its probably shining brighter than its ever shined before, and I think its going to continue to get brighter and brighter.