CHAPEL HILL — Jessica Breland hurts as she watches this basketball season from the bench, unable to contribute one shot to help her beleaguered North Carolina teammates.
Last summer, Breland was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a treatable form of cancer that attacks the immune system. She has since undergone chemotherapy and announced that her cancer is in "remission," though she has taken a redshirt this season as she recovers.
Without the 6-foot-3 senior, the Tar Heels (17-9, 5-7 ACC) have struggled, dropping six of their past seven games. They travel to Georgia Tech today before ending the regular season at home against No. 6 Duke on Sunday.
"I hate to see my teammates struggle," Breland said Thursday. "I kind of feel really, really bad. I just started to cope with it well, losing all these games. ... I don't like losing in anything."
Without Breland, UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell said the Heels are a different team. Her height, speed and athleticism as a power forward are difficult to replace. It's also difficult to make up for Breland's production - she averaged 14.5 points and 8.1 rebounds per game last season.
"We might have lost a couple of games, but there wouldn't have been many we would have lost," Hatchell said. "She is the perfect four player (power forward), and that's what we don't have."
Breland travels with the team and has participated in non-contact drills in practice. She is monitored closely by the training staff and has been slowly working her way back into condition for the past three weeks.
Thursday, she was cleared by doctors to participate in full-contact drills, a good sign that she has regained the body mass and strength she lost while battling cancer.
She weighs 180 pounds after dropping to 140 during her earliest days of chemotherapy. The medicine she was prescribed during chemotherapy damaged her lungs, something she is being treated for by doctors at UNC Hospitals.
Even so, she no longer struggles with shortness of breath while jogging down the court.
"I'm where an average person would be breathing," she said. "But where an athlete would be at, where I was ... I'm not there."
On Wednesday, Breland took the court at Carmichael Auditorium to practice. She filled in on the scout team and displayed the touch and range that made her a must-guard player last season.
"She's playing with some type of motivation that she's never played with," junior point guard Cetera DeGraffenreid said. "You just see her going up there grabbing the rebound, hands almost above the rim. Just hustling. That smooth shot."
Breland, from Kelford, turned 22 on Tuesday and had only one birthday wish.
"It would be [for] God to direct my path for next year," she said. "I feel like I could be the national player of the year, and I'm aiming for it. So that would be my birthday wish. It wouldn't be to get back on the court now because I know that me being off the court is helping me for next year."
Still, every game out of uniform is painful.
"It's nothing I'd rather do but be on the court," she said.
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