Jessica Breland wins Inspiration Award

NEW YORK -- Jessica Breland is always happy to share her story of overcoming Hodgkin's lymphoma with the hope it can be helpful to someone else.

The former North Carolina basketball star, who returned to the court last fall after sitting out one season while undergoing treatments, was honored Sunday night as the selection for the Honda Inspiration Award.

"I'm just very honored to have an opportunity to receive this award," she said earlier in the day. "I just enjoy being able to help other people, and to inspire other people ... I guess is something that's meant for me to do."

The award, given annually to a female college athlete who has overcome adversity to excel in her sport, is fitting for Breland.

The forward, who now plays for the WNBA's New York Liberty, was diagnosed with the disease in May 2009 and received chemotherapy. She sat out a season, returned to the sport after about 1½ years away and averaged 12.5 points and 7.0 rebounds as a senior.

"Just grateful for having the opportunity to be here," Breland said. "Grateful to get back to the court and play my last year with my teammates at UNC."

The inspiration award is part of the collegiate women sports awards, with 12 winners selected as the top women in their respective sports. From those 12, three finalists are selected for the Honda-Broderick Cup as the College Female Athlete of the Year, with the winner to be announced Monday.

Former UConn basketball star Maya Moore, who shared the honor with Penn State volleyball star Megan Hodge last year, is a finalist again this year, along with Nittany Lions volleyball player Blair Brown and Villanova cross country and track standout Sheila Reid.

Breland's father, a close friend and Tar Heels coach Sylvia Hatchell were in attendance at Sunday's dinner where she received the award. Afterward, Breland acknowledged being a little nervous while making her acceptance speech.

"It was a very emotional night," she told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "Taking all that I have been through ... and just being able to stand before people and share my story, that stuff is really emotional."

The disease is in remission, though doctors have told Breland she won't be considered cancer-free until five years have passed since her final treatment.

She feels healthy, having gone through a full college season and training camp with the Liberty, but hopes to keep improving her conditioning.

"I feel like I can get a lot better," Breland said, "and that's always good to have the feeling of being able to get better."

Breland is thankful for all cards, notes and gifts she received while she was undergoing treatments, saying they "helped a whole lot." She is also appreciative of the support she had from teammates and family members, who pushed and motivated her to get better.

All in all, Breland considers herself 'lucky' and says she wouldn't change a thing about her experience.

"I'm very lucky to be able to go through everything I've been through," she said. "I tell people all the time if I had a chance to take it away, not go through what I've been through, I definitely wouldn't change anything because it made me into the person I am today."