CHAPEL HILL — Several weeks ago, the North Carolina women's basketball team visited the UNC Cancer Hospital to spend time with children undergoing treatment in the pediatric oncology clinic.
Senior Jessica Breland spoke with a teenage girl from Goldsboro who was receiving chemotherapy for Hodgkin's lymphoma and struggling through the process. It was a difficult period for the girl, a high school student whose cancer had pulled her from everyday life and a spot on the cheerleading squad.
Breland understood her heartache. It hadn't been long since she was in the girl's place, diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in May 2009. She missed the entire 2009-10 basketball season while undergoing treatment.
This season, with her cancer in remission, Breland returns to the court. She spent that Friday with the girl sharing her comeback story. She showed the girl a scar on her chest where doctors had inserted a medical port.
"We connected," Breland said. "That line that pulled us together like magnets was cancer."
For the kids
Breland, 22, said she was most affected by children with cancer while receiving treatment at UNC Hospitals.
"It's heartbreaking," she said.
She thought of them when approached by coach Sylvia Hatchell and hospital representatives about a fund to raise money to fight cancer. And that's how the Jessica Breland Comeback Kids fund was started.
Tonight, the basketball program and the center will host a Rebounds and Rhinestones gala at the George Watts Hill Alumni Center to officially launch a year of fundraising. Proceeds benefit the UNC Pediatric Oncology Program.
Members of the women's basketball community will participate in this semi-casual, semi-formal event, which features Robin Roberts as its guest speaker. The "Good Morning America" anchor is a former collegiate basketball player and breast cancer survivor.
Attendees also will welcome back Breland, whose return this season has drawn national attention.
"I can't imagine there's a bigger story in the country," Wake Forest coach Mike Petersen said.
Back on the court
Breland received her last cancer treatment on Oct. 23, 2009. Since then, the 6-foot-3 forward slowly has worked back into the sport she grew up playing in Kelford.
Last week, during a scrimmage against male practice players, she dove onto the floor after a rebound. She appeared to be the player who earned the ACC Sixth Player of the Year Award as a sophomore and averaged 14.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game as a junior.
Breland has said breathing is sometimes difficult as a result of her lungs being affected by chemotherapy. Still, she's back to sprinting in the Heels' up-tempo offense.
There were days when she reached "rock bottom," she said, but she pulled through.
It's those lessons of perseverance she shares. It's what she wants the fund to be about.
She had had some reservations about sharing her story, especially so soon after her recovery, but those fears were allayed when she spoke to kids going through treatment.
"I want to tell my story so they can have hope, be inspired," she said.
Hatchell, who worked with hospital staff to organize the fund, saw Breland at her lowest, yet the coach doesn't think her own explanations come close to describing what a cancer patient endures.
"You can talk about what someone goes through taking six months of chemotherapy, but you just don't know until you've walked in those shoes," Hatchell said.
Hatchell said a student-athlete such as Breland can make a unique impact as a cancer survivor spokeswoman. It was evident when she watched Breland interact with the girl at the hospital.
"Jessica said, 'Here's what I went through, but look at me now,' " Hatchell said. " 'I'm on my way back, you'll be doing the same thing.' "
Breland's return has inspired others in the basketball community.
Wake Forest senior Brittany Waters never formally met Breland but admires her story.
"To come back with just a humble heart, it is very, very inspiring to me," Waters said. "That will help a lot of people, not just her team, but a lot of people fight through adversity - whatever it may be."
Breland's teammates are happy to see her back, too.
"We know what she's been through," junior She'la White said.
Virginia coach Debbie Ryan is a pancreatic cancer survivor. She said Breland provides a gift to women's basketball, considering the mature perspective gained after overcoming cancer.
"Basketball becomes so much more important and so much more global to her, as opposed to this little North Carolina team," she said. "Now she affects thousands of people.
"And she learns she has a bigger responsibility in this world than just to be a basketball player. She becomes a cancer survivor. A far bigger assignment."
Nora Lynn Finch, now the ACC's associate commissioner for women's basketball operations, worked on N.C. State's women's basketball staff when coach Kay Yow was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1987.
In 1988, while coach of the U.S. women's basketball team that would win the gold medal at the Seoul Olympics, Yow served as the honorary chairwoman for the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center as it planned a new breast cancer center.
Today there's a lab named after the late coach.
Finch said she sees a similar opportunity for Breland to inspire others to give.
"When we do things beyond ourselves for others, we have the greatest impact," she said. "People do things for themselves every day. It's when we do things for others and we go beyond the expectations of what should be done that we motivate and inspire. That is the potential for Jessica."
Breland said she has embraced the difficult times and now hopes to ease someone else's burden, all while keeping a big smile.
"I'm going to call it a journey," she said. "You have fun on journeys."
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