Cancer Survivor Breland is WNBA Success Story

By Tom Rietmann | July 3, 2013

INDIANAPOLIS -- When Jessica Breland failed to make a WNBA roster last summer, she didn't pout or complain. Instead, she went to work. She improved. And she vowed to make a team in 2013.

Now Breland, who signed with the Indiana Fever before this season, has grown into a solid contributor at backup forward. It's a tale of WNBA success -- one that doesn't surprise anybody who knows the Fever player and her back story. Breland, after all, has stood up against much worse than setbacks on the basketball court.

In 2009, Breland was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph system. Now in her fourth year of remission, she talks openly about how the experience of battling cancer altered her life and her views.

“I went from being Jessica Breland, the basketball player, to being Jessica Breland, the cancer patient,” she said. “It opened my eyes to a lot of different things.”

Breland, a former star at the University of North Carolina, remembers the first days after her diagnosis as a blur of uncertainty and fear.

Finding it hard to catch her breath on the court, she visited a Chapel Hill, N.C., doctor on a Thursday. She underwent a biopsy on Friday. By Monday, she was discussing her future with an oncologist, and chemotherapy treatments began on Wednesday.

“When they told me I had cancer,” Breland said, “it was like, wow, what do I do now? Where do I go from here? I was just shocked. It all happened really, really fast.

“I think the first time I really cried is when I met with the oncologist. I hadn't had time for it all to soak in.”

That was the summer before her senior year at North Carolina. When school started, Breland attended her classes but sat out the 2009-10 basketball season as she took treatments. She returned in 2010-11 and averaged 12.4 points and 7.1 rebounds, making the Atlantic Coast Conference's All-Tournament Team.

Breland became the 13th overall pick in the 2011 WNBA Draft and split that season between New York and Connecticut, playing in 13 games. In 2012, as she labored to add weight and strength in her continuing comeback in basketball, she was waived by the Washington Mystics in training camp.

Breland returned to North Carolina, hit the weight room with her old Tar Heels strength coach, and worked out with the team's players. She added muscle to her 6-foot-3 frame, getting to 170 pounds, which has helped her fight for position against other WNBA post players.

While back in North Carolina, Breland also regularly visited the Chapel Hill hospital connected with her Jessica Breland Comeback Kids Fund, which helps to raise money for a pediatric oncology program.

Breland is proud of what the Comeback Kids Fund accomplishes.Robin Roberts, a former basketball player, a television broadcaster and a cancer survivor, served as a speaker at one of the charity's fundraisers. When Breland represents the charity and visits children at the hospital, she sometimes takes Tar Heels players along.

“(It's) nice to see a bigger picture of things,” said Breland, who is known to pass out North Carolina hats and gear to the kids. “You have little infants fighting for their lives and they haven't even lived life yet.”

Last winter, Breland enjoyed successful stints with pro teams in Turkey and Israel. Kelly Krauskopf, the Fever's president and general manager, had kept a watch on Breland's career since college and targeted her as a prospect for the 2013 Indiana team. The 25-year-old forward signed in February.

“She's long and athletic and plays around the rim,” Krauskopf said. “We needed another post who added that length.”

Breland is averaging 4.7 points and 4.4 rebounds and leads the Fever with 12 blocked shots. In a recent victory over Seattle, she produced WNBA career highs of 10 points and 10 rebounds in less than 20 minutes on the floor.

“I just think about bringing a spark, bringing energy when I come in,” Breland said about her Fever role.

Krauskopf, like the Fever coaches and players, couldn't be happier about Breland's successful return to the game.

“I think what it shows is that she's able to overcome a lot of adversity,” Krauskopf said. “To me, it shows just how much resilience she has. It's very inspiring to know what she overcame and how she's performing today, how she's worked and clawed her way back to the WNBA.”