CHAPEL HILL — Jessica Breland welcomed the warm tears rolling down her cheeks.
Sitting at her locker before a pickup basketball game a few weeks ago, the North Carolina senior started sobbing uncontrollably, catching her teammates by surprise. She assured them everything was all right.
"Sometimes I get overwhelmed, and I just break down," she said last week. "You rarely see people break down because they are happy and feeling good. You always see people when they are sad and depressed. I'm just feeling blessed being able to be here."
Breland has good reason to shed happy tears. Diagnosed in May of 2009 with Hodgkin's lymphoma - a form of cancer that attacks the immune system - the 6-foot-3 forward has returned to the basketball court after missing the entire 2009-10 season.
This time last year, the Kelford native was receiving treatments at UNC Hospitals, too tired, weak and sick to think about shooting jump shots from the high post. Now she's back stroking shots from 15 feet.
Breland has long finished chemotherapy, and her cancer is in remission. She has been cleared to play for the 2010-11 season, hoping to regain the form of her junior season when she averaged 14.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game.
"I expect nothing but the best," said Breland, who completed UNC's second summer school session this week but will remain on campus to continue working out.
For Breland, this summer has been about preparing to answer questions: Will she have the same strength, mobility and versatility? Can she add to her game? Can she lead?
"She needs to prove that she's healthy and capable," women's basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli said, adding, "I think there is going to be something special about her and her season. We see what can happen to the human spirit when you're motivated and trying to accomplish things outside yourself."
She already has a place in UNC's record book - seventh in career field-goal percentage (.526) and third in career blocks (231) - but Breland said that before her illness, she got by with an average basketball player's work ethic, showing up to practice, doing enough to get by.
"When I was out on the court, I didn't have that drive and mind-set that this is what I want to do," she said. "Right now I have a great opportunity to show people who I am."
Tar Heels coach Sylvia Hatchell likes to say Breland "looks like a million bucks," having regained the muscle mass she lost during chemotherapy as well as endurance to run the court.
When Breland first returned to the court, slowly phasing into a regular workout routine, basic drills taxed her strength. Simply backpedaling from the baseline to the free-throw line and taking a shot tuckered her out after 10 repetitions.
"I've never been that far out of shape," Breland said.
It was back to the weight room, where she has surpassed her previous benchmarks. She has also expanded her shooting range to the 3-point line, where her goal is to shoot 90 percent. Expect her, though, to make the most impact in the post, where her athleticism has served her well.
The chemotherapy medicines used to treat Breland's cancer damaged her lungs, though she has been cleared by a specialist and told she now has normal lung function. She's back running with her teammates, only tiring after prolonged periods.
The original symptoms that led doctors to diagnose Breland's cancer - fatigue, night sweats, throat soreness and chest pain - are gone, she said.
"I can breathe through my nose now," she said.
Dr. Thomas Shea, a UNC professor of medicine in the division of hematology and oncology, cared for Breland at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. Having seen Breland on her worst days, he has been impressed by her dedication to return.
"A lot of people after having gone through what's she's gone through, do struggle for a while," Shea said. "It can happen the way it has with Jessica, but it's not a guarantee. It's a testament to her that she was able to do it."
Hatchell said Breland's perseverance has removed a "black cloud" that covered the program last season. Without their star player, the Heels struggled to a 19-12 finish and never seemed to find balance.
"Doesn't matter how many bright lights you turn on, that cloud is overhead," Hatchell said. "That black cloud is gone, so the sunlight is shining through brightly."
After a season when her actions were limited to verbally spurring on her teammates, Breland is becoming the type of commanding leader she never imagined she could be as a freshman surrounded by dominating personalities such as older teammates Ivory Latta, Erlana Larkins and Camille Little.
"I shocked myself," she said.
She also has evolved into an interpreter for her teammates, explaining the coaches' demands in a digestible language. This summer she has taken even more initiative to push her teammates.
"She definitely brings energy," UNC senior Italee Lucas said. "She's working hard. You can feel the passion."
As a fifth-year senior, Breland realizes her remaining time on campus is short. She said she wants to use her final season to show she's the type of player worthy of being selected No. 1 in the WNBA draft.
"That's the ultimate goal," she said. "If I can lead this team to an ACC championship, if I can lead them to a Final Four, play in the championship game and win it all, then I know that can happen. I'm the type of person that knows if you help other people get what they want, then you're that much closer to getting what you want."
One more reason to shed happy tears.
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