CHAPEL HILL — Overlooking the downpours that made Wednesday afternoon gloomy, North Carolina senior Jessica Breland smiled as if she could never let an overcast sky discourage her spirit.
Over the past seven months, as the Tar Heels' women's basketball standout battled and recovered from Hodgkin's lymphoma - a form of cancer that attacks the immune system - she has triumphed over many gloomy days. There were times as she underwent chemotherapy where the nausea, chills and fatigue drained her energy and confined her to bed.
"I've learned how to turn bad days like this into great days," Breland said on Wednesday in an interview. "As you see, I'm smiling. ... I'm just grateful to be healthy right now."
Back in May, the Tar Heels announced that their top returning scorer from a season ago had been diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing treatment at UNC Hospitals. For the first time on Wednesday, Breland spoke about her health, saying that her cancer is in "complete remission," that she has completed chemotherapy and is looking forward to returning to the basketball court.
Her return, however, will likely come next season. Breland said she is taking her health into consideration and will not rush back - no matter how much she misses the game.
"I am a very tough girl," she said. "How I am now, just sitting out there watching them play, I want to get on the court. I'm ready. But I know what's best for me will probably be sitting out this year."
North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell, who has said the team will do what's in the best interest of Breland, said she will consult the player's doctor next week before making a final decision. For now, Breland sits on the bench and travels with the team. She will make the trip with the Tar Heels for today's game at Michigan State as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Breland, who was added to the preseason Wade Trophy list for the nation's best player, said, "I think the best thing for me would be to redshirt. It's the best thing. I don't want to go out there and hurt my teammates."
Breland, who has started light basic workouts, added that she does not want to injure herself, considering two weeks ago doctors surgically removed the port inserted near her left shoulder where chemotherapy medicines were injected.
The 6-foot-3 forward from Kelford has always been thin, but she looks as if she's near her playing weight of 165 pounds, though she has lost 10 pounds of muscle and hasn't run a wind sprint since May.
At that time, she was coming off a career-best season and preparing for USA women's basketball tryouts. She told UNC coaches she wasn't feeling well and didn't think she could attend.
She explained that she was having night sweats and chest pains, but her throat was also bothering her. They took her to see an ear, nose and throat specialist, who ran a battery of tests and took X-rays of her chest. She spent hours in the hospital that Thursday, ending the day listening to a doctor explain what he thought might be wrong.
"The last thing he said was cancer," Breland said. "I was like, 'What?' I can't take it all in. I'm healthy. Cancer. What?"
The next day, a Friday, she had a biopsy, where cells were removed from her chest for examination. That following Monday, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. That Tuesday doctors inserted a port in her chest and completed a bone marrow procedure. On that Wednesday, she underwent her first chemotherapy session.
"Everything was like that," said Breland, snapping her fingers twice.
After a few weeks of treatment, she dropped to 140 pounds. The chemotherapy sessions exhausted her and left a bad taste in her mouth. There were times where she felt as she was going to vomit all day but did not.
"She just hated it," Breland's sister, Arneice, said.
But Breland, surrounded by family, teammates and coaches, pulled through with a smile. Her father, Charles, made a two-hour drive every week she went through chemotherapy to go out to dinner with her the night before. (Her mother, Jean, could not make it because of a health condition.)
Fans sent letters of encouragement. One of her teammates brought her breakfast many mornings.
Breland's experience has been made her aware of the tribulations that others endure. She considers her cancer a blessing, something that showed her what she could do in the face of adversity.
So, yeah, even on cloudy days, she's wearing a smile.
"It's all about your spirit," Breland said. "Even if you're having a bad day, a common cold, you put a smile on, you trick your body it'll go. I managed to learn how to trick myself."