When a battle turns into a blessing

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina women's basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell could envision 2010 for senior Jessica Breland. The conclusion of an All-ACC and All-America season. An early selection in the WNBA draft. A future making a living playing hoops.

Breland, a 6-foot-3 forward from Kelford, N.C., knew this was her time to be the top Tar Heel. After playing behind the likes of stellar posts Camille Little, Erlana Larkins and LaToya Pringle -- all WNBA draft picks -- her first two years, Breland emerged as North Carolina's main interior threat last season.

Now, with five seniors leaving, she would be the team's leader for 2009-10. Breland was set to attend USA Basketball trials, part of preparing for what everyone assumed would be her most successful college season yet.

There was a problem, though. Breland went into Hatchell's office this past spring and said, "Coach, I can't breathe."

This had happened previously in Breland's career at UNC. She had asthma and was treated for that. Then, the diagnosis was allergies. Got shots for that. Last season, she had the flu. Then bronchitis. She never felt fully well but still averaged 14.1 points and 8.5 rebounds with an ACC-leading 108 blocked shots.

Still, Hatchell could see the potential for so much more.

"I had been on that kid so hard," Hatchell said. "I was always on her about getting in shape, how she needed to work harder. It was because she had so much talent; I knew she could accomplish a lot and I wanted that for her."

But now, there was another breathing ailment to deal with. The report came back that it was nothing serious. Hatchell, however, was still worried. Breland also told her then about night sweats, a sore throat and fatigue. Hatchell turned to a friend at UNC, Dr. Harold Pillsbury, an otolaryngology (ear, nose and throat) specialist. He agreed to examine Breland.

"I was on the road, doing a speaking engagement, and they called me," Hatchell said. "And when they told me what it was, I just fell apart."

Breland had Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system. With that, the continuing nagging illnesses suddenly, frighteningly, made sense.

Hatchell had never dealt with one of her players having cancer. The closest thing to this was in her first season of coaching, 1975-76, when she was at Francis Marion College and a player came down with tuberculosis.

Breland, of course, knew of the battle NC State women's coach Kay Yow had waged against cancer down the road in Raleigh -- a fight that had started before Breland was born. She knew about the sadness that had surrounded Yow's death this past January.

She knew of the legacy of Wolfpack men's coach Jim Valvano, who died of cancer in 1993 and whose presence still lingers so strongly in all of college basketball, but especially in this region of North Carolina.

She knew about the Pink Zone games and cancer awareness -- and yet, she says now, she really didn't fully grasp it at all. Cancer was no part of her life … until it threatened her life.

"I didn't know anything about cancer, except as just the word itself," Breland said. "I guess I was blind about it. When you don't go through something or have to face it -- I never faced it with family members or anyone close to me -- you don't know what you go through.

"Now, I see people who I can tell are having treatments, and I know what they feel like. I watch movies or TV and I hear people talking about cancer. And it really hits me now.

"A movie I'd seen before … like 'Notorious.' I saw it again this summer. And it made me think, 'Dang, his mother had cancer.' Now, I understand."

Jessica, 21, is the youngest of Jean and Charles Breland's four daughters. Jean is dealing with multiple sclerosis and heart problems.

"They try to keep stuff away from me," Jessica says of her parents and sisters. "But this summer, my mom had to get a pacemaker, and she was already using a walker. So it's hard for her to get around."

It would figure that in dealing with that and then her own illness on top of it, Breland would be overwhelmed. She admits that at the beginning -- with the shock of the diagnosis and the immediate start of chemotherapy -- her mood was bleak.

"It was really hard, and it took me about a month or so to get out of that mindset of, 'Why did this happen to me?'" she said. "But it's all about your spirit. If you are down and out like that, you don't get any better. I realized I needed to get out, get some sunshine, work camps -- even when I was feeling horrible, physically, that made me feel better.

"I had different reactions to the chemo after treatments, but the one thing that was always the same was I had this metallic taste in my mouth. Another thing that wouldn't go away was the constant feeling like I was going to throw up. You know, usually when you are sick, you might feel [nauseated] that way for an hour or two at most. But for me, it was 24 hours a day for a while.

"Sometimes I would have body aches. And I would be tired. So tired, it was like I couldn't move."

Breland says her fellow Tar Heels, while very supportive, gave her space early on, which was what she wanted. Her closest friends among her teammates had been last season's senior class. One of the players she most looked up to was Rashanda McCants, whose own mother had dealt with cancer.

During the summer, McCants was a rookie with the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx and wasn't able to immediately get back to North Carolina to see Breland.

"It was difficult for me at first to even accept the fact that Jessica was diagnosed with cancer, especially after going through it previously with my mother," McCants said from Israel, where she is playing this winter. "Jessica has always been like a little sister to me, and knowing that she was in danger hurt me deeply because there was nothing physically that I could do to help.

"But it took me back to when my mother was going through her battle. It wasn't so much anything we did that helped my mother get through that. It was just the emotional support from my family that helped. Knowing that, I tried to be there for Jessica emotionally, because physically I couldn't. She was definitely on my mind heavily the entire season."

As soon as McCants had a break to return to North Carolina, she came home and sat with Breland through a chemo treatment. McCants also knew there was another way to help.

"Jessica is one of the kindest people I have ever met, and she would give the world to the people closest to her," said McCants, who is from Asheville, N.C. "But she'd never ask for anything or expect anything. And the last thing she would want is pity.

"But I also knew that she would never turn down a home-cooked meal from my mom. So I told her that my mom would cook for her anytime she needed it. And, boy, can she eat."

It was a relief to Breland when she really did have an appetite. She came to dread the twice-a-month chemo treatments, which lasted much of the day, to the degree that she would have difficulty eating the night before. Each time, after the treatment was over, she was too exhausted to do anything but go home and collapse into sleep.

And yet, as much as she could, she made herself get up and keep moving. Go out and walk in the sunshine. Play with her nieces and nephews.

The oldest of them, at 14, realized what her aunt was facing and cried when she first saw Breland after hearing about her illness. But the younger ones didn't understand. They'd climb all over her, wanting to play. She did her best to keep up with them.

"After I got adjusted to it, I didn't want anybody to be moping about it," Breland said. "I needed good energy. I was smiling, so I felt everybody else around me should be, too."

Hatchell says she had to get past her own remorse about Breland. She felt she'd been too hard on her, trying to get her to reach her potential.

"I sat down with her and told her how sorry I was," Hatchell said. "And she said, 'Coach, it's no big deal. Nobody knew what it was.' But I was so glad we found it and started the chemo right away. It's gone into remission, but they still have to monitor her.

"A couple of weeks ago, she said to me, 'After all the things I've been through the last few months, if I could change all that, I wouldn't. Because I have grown so much as a person. I've matured, and I have learned what's important in life.'

"How many people do you know who would say something like that? A 21-year-old kid who said she wouldn't change it because it's made her a better person. That's amazing to me."

Breland, who loves math and is majoring in African-American studies, hasn't officially opted to redshirt this season, but that's pretty much a certainty. She underwent chemo from May through October, getting her port for the treatments removed just recently.

She didn't lose any hair. Her weight is back to normal -- 165, which she would like to add to -- and she says she feels ready to go out and play.

"It's like I'm caged," she said, smiling. "I haven't felt sick in a while, so I feel like I could get out on court and do what I usually do, that I'm up to it. But then reality sets in: I've lost a lot of muscle, I haven't been doing this over the last six, seven months. In my mind, I could do a lot of stuff, but my body is holding me back. I'm not really a patient person, but with this I know I have to have patience."

Hodgkin's lymphoma is one of the most curable forms of cancer, with a high survival rate as long as it is caught early.

"Dr. Pillsbury said -- and I laugh at this now -- that if you have to have cancer, this would be one of the best kinds to have," Breland said. "I didn't know how you could put 'best' and 'cancer' in the same sentence. But now I understand.

"All the doctors had faith that I would come back and be able to play. I know that it's going to be OK. I feel like the stuff we do on the court is nowhere near the kind of pain I've been through with chemo. I can see my whole mindset is different: Stuff that kind of hurts working out actually feels good to me. It's like I want more of that. It's nowhere near as bad as chemo."

Over the summer, Breland heard from fellow ACC players such as Virginia's Monica Wright and Maryland's Lynetta Kizer, whom she'd played with in club basketball. Cavaliers coach Debbie Ryan, herself a cancer survivor, sent Breland a Build-A-Bear stuffed toy.

"That was really sweet," Breland said. "When I got sick, it wasn't about which team I played for. It was a lot of people reaching out to me.

"I was never the kind of person who asked for help or relied on anyone. But with this, I knew help was needed. It was like I had a hole within me, and everybody just covered it."

Breland's assistant coach, former Tar Heels star Charlotte Smith, kept reminding her how strong a person she was. Smith also had done that before Breland's illness.

"Coach Smith used to always tell me that I have greatness in me," Breland said. "And that I just needed to tap into it. She said, 'When you find something that can give you that passion, that drive, then you'll be unstoppable.'

"And I feel now like going through everything I've been through, I have that passion. They tell us all the time, you really don't know what you can do until you have to. That you may not push yourself to that level until you have no choice.

"I had no choice but to take chemo. I dreaded it, but I had to. When you have to do something, you find out you can do it."

Breland will travel with the team and gradually work herself back into shape. She will observe everything, examine all that is going on during practices and games. She'll remind herself every day that the worst thing she has dealt with is also, astonishingly, a blessing.

"A lot of the game is mental, and I feel like in that area, every second of the day, I'm growing," she said. "I feel I'm a better player right now than I was a year ago, from sitting and watching. I can see the coaches' and the players' points of view. It's like I'm outside the box looking in.

"With basketball, I don't mean to be cocky or anything, but I feel like I have what it takes. When I come back to play, I'm going to work harder than ever. I feel like that's all I want to do now: Put in that extra effort."

And especially during times like the Jimmy V Week in December and the Pink Zone events in February, Breland will experience joining together for a cause as she never did before.

"I feel like I'm a part of it now," she said. "And that I truly understand it."

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