Breland ready to focus on future

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Jessica Breland figures any day is a good day after spending the past six months fighting Hodgkin's lymphoma.

So the chilly rain pouring down outside the Smith Center on Wednesday couldn't wash the big smile off the North Carolina standout's face.

"I'm just grateful to be able to be healthy right now and to walk around," Breland said. "I can't wait to get back on the court. I'm feeling pretty good, real good."

In her first public comments since her diagnosis in May, the senior forward said her disease is in remission and she has completed her chemotherapy treatments. She's ready to think about the future, though the player expected to be the centerpiece of the fourth-ranked Tar Heels' rebound-and-run attack sounds like she has all but closed the door on coming back this year.

The competitor in her says she's ready as she watches games from the bench. Her body knows otherwise. She's lost muscle from her lean 6-foot-3 frame and hasn't been able to run or lift weights in months.

"If I go out there 85 percent, that's not giving to my team and my coaches," she said. "I wouldn't want that from anybody."

Coach Sylvia Hatchell, who has said several times that she expected that Breland would redshirt, said Breland remained upbeat throughout the process. Most notably, Hatchell remembers during a recent team meal when Breland said she wouldn't change what had happened because she had learned so much about herself.

"She looked at me and said, 'This has been a blessing," Hatchell said. "When a 21-year-old has had chemo for months ... and she says if she could go back and change it she wouldn't?

"I didn't even bring up the conversation. I'm sitting there listening to her and I'm just like, 'Wow."

Still, Virginia coach Debbie Ryan -- a survivor of pancreatic cancer who recruited Breland -- said keeping a positive attitude isn't easy.

"What you feel publicly and what you feel privately are two different things," said Ryan, who talked to Hatchell several times during the summer to check in on Breland. "There's definitely a lot of fear associated with cancer. I'm sure privately she was fighting a war few of us can understand even though she put on a brave face publicly."

Breland was a preseason all-Atlantic Coast Conference pick and was the top returning scorer and rebounder for North Carolina. Last year, she managed a 31-point game on the road against Courtney Paris and Oklahoma early in the season and had a 23-rebound performance against rival Duke in February.

She averaged 14 points, 8.5 rebounds and an ACC-best 3.1 blocks to rank seventh nationally. But in May, after a history of ailments ranging from asthma to allergies, she went to see a doctor because of a lingering sore throat. That soon led to hours of tests followed by a biopsy the next day, which ultimately confirmed the unthinkable.

"It didn't click into my head until like five hours later when I was in (the doctor's) office and he was giving me all these medical terms," Breland said of the testing. "I was like, 'What?' Then the last thing he said was cancer, and I couldn't take it all in because I was healthy. I was OK. I was just like, 'Huh? Cancer?"

Within days, doctors had installed a port in her left chest for chemotherapy treatments. She lost about 25 pounds and weighed about 140 at one point. She gradually got her weight back up by eating as many times as she could with a plan devised by the team trainer and a nutritionist.

Along the way, there were the side effects: chills, aches, constant nausea, fatigue. Everything she ate had a metallic taste, a sensation so powerful that she said she often got it the night before a chemotherapy treatment.

But Breland wasn't alone. Her teammates or assistant coach Tracey Williams-Johnson often accompanied her to those chemotherapy treatments. The women's basketball office soon saw a steady stream of get-well cards from fans, including from many cancer survivors offering words of encouragement.

Her father, Charles Jr., often made the 2½-hour drive from his home in Kelford in the northeastern part of the state for his daughter's chemotherapy treatments, too.

"It was her last chemo treatment, the coaches were there and her friends," he said. "The nurses sang to her and gave her a little plaque to say it was over with. From that moment on, her spirits have been lifted. You can see that bright light now."

Indeed. By Wednesday afternoon, Jessica Breland was proudly showing off the surgically closed wound where her port used to be.

"I'm all done," she said with a smile. "I'm just going up from here."