After Brain Cancer, Navy Vet Goes For Gold

Written by: Saul Wisnia

Alanna Devlin Ball spent 12 years in the U.S. Navy, rising to the rank of lieutenant commander and serving with the elite SEAL Team TWO special operations unit. She was trained to always be ready for action, and worked to do so even when facing a daunting off-the-job challenge: brain cancer. 

In between radiation sessions and chemotherapy at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center, Ball, 38, kept up her twice-daily workouts. Later, after her active treatment, she earned six medals (five golds and one silver) in swimming and powerlifting at the 2022 Department of Defense Warrior Games — an annual sports competition for wounded, ill, and injured active-duty and veteran U.S. military service members.  

Now medically retired from the Navy, Ball remains in action. The South Boston native provides advice and encouragement to others living with cancer, and will be putting her athletic prowess to the test once again in facing the world’s top wounded service members and vets at the 2023 Invictus Games in Germany this September. 

“Competitions like this are so important, because they allow us something to focus on,” says Ball. “Regardless of what you’re dealing with, having goals to shoot for is a vital part of recovery.” 

Alanna Devlin Ball and her husband, James Ball, who is also a fellow Navy officer.
Alanna Devlin Ball and her husband, James Ball, who is also a fellow Navy officer.

Headaches and heartache 

Ball’s partner on this journey is her husband and fellow Naval officer James Ball. Theirs is a battle-tested marriage; the couple’s first anniversary fell on April 2, 2019, one day after Alanna had surgery to remove the tumor in her brain. 

“We celebrated in the ICU,” she recalls with a smile. 

In the months that followed, Ball’s Dana-Farber Brigham care team — led by Ugonma Chukwueke, MD, MPH, of the Center for Neuro-Oncology — quickly grew to admire their patient’s dogged determination. 

“Alanna is nothing short of remarkable,” says Chukwueke. “I am privileged to be her neuro-oncologist and over the past few years in caring for her, we have developed a wonderful relationship that I truly cherish. We are all inspired by how she has taken control of what is a life-changing diagnosis to push through newer and exciting challenges.” 

Pushing herself to the limit has always come naturally to Ball. Drawn to the water before she could walk, she earned numerous swimming honors at Boston Latin Academy while dreaming of a military career. 

“I had a grandfather who had been in the Navy, and I always appreciated and valued service as something important to do for your country,” Ball says. 

Further inspiration came from her mother, a breast cancer survivor treated at Dana-Farber Brigham when Ball was in high school. It was her mom who insisted Ball finish college before joining the military, and she did — earning a degree from Lasell University and then entering Navy Officer Candidate School at age 25. 

The next decade included stints at the Pentagon and Bahrain, and by 2018 Ball was living in Virginia Beach, Va., and heading up logistics operations for SEAL Team TWO. Then came a series of terrible headaches that baffled her doctors, until an MRI revealed a tumor in the right frontal lobe of Ball’s brain. 

“I had surgery at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center, and they were able to completely resect my tumor and confirm it was cancer,” Ball says. “The whole thing happened so fast, I was in shock. But I knew where I wanted to go next.” 

That was back to Boston, and Dana-Farber Brigham, where her mother had been treated more than 20 years before. Taking up temporary residence at her parents’ house in nearby Milton, Ma., the newlyweds met with Chukwueke, radiation oncologist Shyam Tanguturi, MD, and the rest of their care team. 

“They were all incredible,” says Ball. “Navigating through treatment can be terrifying, but everybody was so supportive that I always felt I knew exactly what was ahead of me.” 

Ball's support system includes her mother Mary Devlin, a breast cancer survivor also treated at Dana-Farber Brigham.
Ball’s support system includes her mother Mary Devlin, a breast cancer survivor also treated at Dana-Farber Brigham.

Grateful and giving back   

Encouraged by her doctors to “walk and stay a little bit active” during her six weeks of Monday-through-Friday radiation treatments and daily low-dose chemotherapy, Ball took things to her usual extreme. She and James shared morning workouts (usually weightlifting), drove in for Alanna’s radiation at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center in clinical affiliation with South Shore Hospital under Tanguturi’s direction, and then headed home to rest, grab a meal, and then do some cardio. Alanna also practiced a series of integrative therapies including reiki, acupuncture, and massage, regularly. 

“I remember the doctors looking a little shocked when they found out everything I was doing,” Ball recalls with a laugh. “They just said to rest when I needed to, and I did.” 

After completing her radiation Ball returned to Virginia and continued with high-dose chemotherapy, supplemented by monthly visits to Dana-Farber Brigham for bloodwork, MRIs, and meetings with Chukwueke. It was around then, in early 2020, that Ball was encouraged to try out for a Special Operations Command Athlete Team competing in the annual Warrior Games in Tampa, Florida. Ball made the team, and after two years of COVID-19 forced cancellations, she quickly made up for lost time.  

Ball (second from left) with other medal-winning swimmers at the 2022 Warrior Games.
Ball (second from left) with other medal-winning swimmers at the 2022 Warrior Games.

In addition to gold medals in five swimming events, and a silver in powerlifting, Ball also competed in rowing at the 2022 Warrior Games. Her opponents included service members dealing with a wide variety of injuries, including missing limbs — and she felt proud and inspired to be alongside them.

And these days, with Ball’s condition stable and her visits to Dana-Farber Brigham down to every four months, she has plenty of time for Invictus Games training. 

“You never really get over the shock of a diagnosis like that, and I still deal with a lot of anxiety and depression,” says Ball. “But I’m incredibly grateful to be here, and that’s why I talk to other people going through something similar whenever I can.” 

6 thoughts on “After Brain Cancer, Navy Vet Goes For Gold”

  1. Wow! I am speechless. My son is in phase 2 of treatment for brain cancer. This story is so inspiring.

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