by Mike Potter
One of the toughest members of the UNC women’s basketball team is in the fight of her life.
Rising senior post Jessica Breland has Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Whether or not Breland will be able to play next season isn’t clear, but the disease won’t necessarily end her basketball career.
Pittsburgh Penguins owner and Hockey Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux, whose team will play Game 7 of its Stanley Cup Finals series with the Detroit Red Wings on Friday night, returned to play two months after announcing his diagnosis with the disease in 1993. He retired four years later, only to return to the ice again after a three-season hiatus and play in 188 regular-season and playoff games over the next six seasons.
“Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is a very curable form of cancer,” Dr. Mario Ciocca of UNC Sports Medicine said in a press release issued by the school. “Factoring in Jessica’s age and her overall good health and athleticism, we anticipate a positive response.”
Breland said in the press release that her spirits are good.
“The last few weeks have been a really emotional time for me, but I’ve got a very positive attitude about my treatment and I’m looking forward to getting healthy and getting back to playing basketball as soon as possible,” said Breland, who learned she had the disease in May. “I’ve been keeping my normal schedule, going to class, helping out with camp, and I’m not going to let this get me down.”
The 6-foot-3 Breland, from Kelford in Bertie County, has a well-earned reputation as a tough customer on the court.
Soft-spoken with the media, Breland says she loves everything about math and wants to be an accountant after her basketball career is over.
But she’s a veritable vacuum cleaner on the boards, averaging 14.1 points and 8.5 rebounds and had 108 blocked shots last season. With an impressive vertical leap, she was voted by her teammates as the most likely player to dunk during a game.
The Tar Heels, who were ranked as high as No. 2 during the season, finished 28-7 and got Coach Sylvia Hatchell her 800th victory along the way. Last month, Hatchell was inducted into both the North Carolina and South Carolina Sports Halls of Fame and received an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from Francis Marion University.
“Obviously, this news came as a shock to everyone, but Jessica is a fighter and I know that she will attack this with the same attitude and energy she brings to the basketball court,” Hatchell said.