Pink Zone has new meaning for Breland

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Jessica Breland finished off a plate of food and talked about continuing to chase one of her goals.

"Guess how much I weigh now?" she asked, smiling.

Unlike many people, the answer that Breland hopes for is that you might notice she has gained weight. After battling Hodgkin's lymphoma this summer, the 6-foot-3 post player for North Carolina was worried about how much she had lost.

Even before getting ill, Breland felt she needed to add some bulk to her 165-pound frame to help her handle the pounding inside better. But while she was undergoing chemotherapy, which typically left her exhausted and nauseated, Breland's weight fell as low as 140.

"Now I'm at 171.5 [pounds]," she said, adding with a laugh, "don't forget that .5 -- that's important. I'd never been over 165 before. So I'm happy, but I still want to get a little bigger. I'm shooting for 180. I want to get more muscle."

Breland had to redshirt in what was to be her senior season, and previously spoke in December with ESPN.com about dealing with cancer. Of course, February's Pink Zone -- which raises money for the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund -- has great personal significance now for Breland.

"It overwhelms me at times," she said of seeing the devotion to cancer research. "I never really knew the true meaning of all this or felt it as much as I do now. For everybody who's going through treatments, seeing this is a support for them."

Expected to be one of the top forwards in the country this season, Breland has been very tough for the Tar Heels to replace. North Carolina has lost four games in a row and is in the odd position of being in the bottom six of the ACC with a 4-5 record. The Tar Heels face Virginia on Monday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET).

Especially with the Heels struggling, Breland has found watching from the bench even more difficult than she expected.

"I thought as the season went on, it would get easier -- but it hasn't at all," Breland said. "It seems like it gets harder. But I have great support from family and friends who encourage me to keep my head up and not rush it. They tell me to just sit back and learn all I can.

"I feel like I've learned more in these last few months than in the other 21 years of my life. I look at basketball from a different point of view."

Breland tries to pass on tips to her teammates and keep things as positive as possible in practice. She is able to work out to some degree with them, but can't do as much as she'd like.

"Our athletic trainer holds me back. She gives me this look like, 'You better not,'" Breland said. "I just want to get out there and do more. I lift weights four or five times a week. When they run, I try to run with them. I shoot, the basic stuff. I want to get into a little of the contact, but I'm not allowed. I can do everything except contact drills."

But as you could guess from her weight gain, Breland is feeling good these days. And she looks so good that she encounters people who haven't heard about her having cancer and ask her why she's not playing this season.

"And I just pause … you don't always know how to answer," she said. "So then I tell them, and they feel bad, and I'm like, 'Don't worry; it's OK.' And then they say, 'You don't look like you had cancer! You're so healthy!'"

Still, Breland is closely monitored. Her next PET (positron emission tomography) scan is Tuesday.

"And I see a lung specialist every month," she said. "One of the medicines from the chemo damaged my lungs, and they have me on some different medicine now. The first time I went, my breathing test was down, but now I'm up to 90 percent.

"I can actually breathe out of my nose now, and I didn't used to be able to do that. My adenoids were huge, and they shrunk from the chemo. Overall, I probably feel better than I ever have."

So most of the time, she doesn't even think much about all she has been through.

"When I do, it's when I'm working out and I feel like I want to take a break," Breland said. "Like if I'm lifting weights, and I'm at my 10th rep and I have to get to 15 and think I can't do it. Then I remember what I've dealt with, and I just push through it."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.