A ‘Win-Win’ Situation: Women’s Lacrosse Team ‘Adopts’ Cancer Patient

There was a new face on the sidelines at Reese Stadium on March 17 when the Yale women’s lacrosse team beat Brown 8-7. She is Alanna [last name withheld]; she’s 13 years old; and she is being treated for a brain tumor at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven.

Alanna has been “adopted” by the women’s lacrosse team as part of a nationwide “Friends of Jaclyn” program, which pairs college athletic teams with children with pediatric brain tumors.

When the team members decided to take part in the “Friends of Jaclyn” program, they specifically sought out a patient from the newly opened Smilow Cancer Hospital, in honor of the fact that Joel E. Smilow ‘54 has been a longtime supporter of Yale athletics in general and the women’s lacrosse program in particular.

The team members first met Alanna the day before the Yale-Brown game in Smilow Field Center, the facility that houses the women’s lacrosse locker room and those of multiple other Yale teams. She and her sister Mia joined in the official 2010 team photograph, got an autographed ball and some Yale gear, and then headed off with the team for a tour of the locker room and training room. The next day, the sisters came out onto the field before the game and were introduced to the crowd at Reese Stadium along with Yale’s starting lineup. They then headed to the sideline to sit with the players, while their mother and younger sister, Emma, watched the game from the stands.

The Yale-Brown game was a back-and-forth match that wasn’t decided until junior midfielder Kaitlyn Flatley scored the game-winning goal with nine seconds to play. The sisters joined every team huddle, including the one during a timeout right before Flatley’s game-winner.

“It was amazing to be in the huddle like that,” Alanna says. “I’ve never done anything like that before. It was really intense, and it was great to see how they work together as teammates. That last pep talk was really loud.”

Alanna had been to a Yale football game before, and she has a cousin that played men’s lacrosse at the New York Institute of Technology. But she didn’t know much about Yale women’s lacrosse until the team, working with Smilow Cancer Hospital, identified her as a perfect match for the adoption program.

“I knew they were the Bulldogs, and that was about it,” she says.

If the sixth grader was impressed with the Yale team, the feeling was very mutual, says Anne Phillips, the Joel E. Smilow, Class of 1954 Head Coach of Women’s Lacrosse. “Alanna is so outgoing and personable, and she has really taken an interest in Yale women’s lacrosse,” says Phillips. “She has made it easy for us. Having her mom and her sisters involved as well has made it that much more of a family affair. We try to foster a family atmosphere on our team anyway, and this is a big part of that.”

Alanna began treatment at Smilow Cancer Hospital earlier this month. She has had the tumor since she was a baby and had been treated at other hospitals before.

“Smilow [Cancer Hospital] is the nicest,” Alanna says. “It’s huge. I got in there the second day it was open. The oncology ward is really cool. It was cheery — not depressing. You walk in there and you see all the new stuff that they have. They have a healing garden, which is really cool.”

Alanna spends six hours at Smilow Cancer Center every week getting treatment, and the plan is for her new teammates to visit her there regularly now.

“This definitely means a lot,” Alanna notes. “It’s really cool how they get me happy, and help me not to think about chemotherapy.”

Focusing on community service is a high priority for Phillips, who is in her second season in New Haven, as well as her assistant coaches, Brigid Strain and Jillian Byers. Earlier this year, the Bulldogs had scheduled a free lacrosse clinic for local youth lacrosse players at a nearby facility. When Haiti was hit with a devastating earthquake shortly before the clinic, the team quickly turned the event into a fundraiser and raised more than $3,500 for the American Red Cross. Later this season, the Bulldogs will take part in Under Armour’s “Power in Pink” campaign, wearing special pink jerseys for the game vs. Columbia on Apr. 17 to raise money for breast cancer charities.

It’s already clear that the adoption of Alanna is going to be a win-win situation, says Phillips, noting that the night of the Yale-Brown game, Alanna’s mother sent an e-mail saying that all Alanna could talk about was meeting the team.

“Knowing that we’re helping her at a tough time in her life makes it all worthwhile,” says Phillips. “But at the same time it’s a two-way street. Our team will benefit from knowing Alanna. She is inspiring and engaging.”

Of course, as with any relationship, there were some necessary sacrifices on both sides. While chatting with Alanna on the day before the game, the Bulldogs learned that orange was her favorite color, so they decided to wear orange bows in their hair for the match — temporarily sporting one of the colors of a certain Ivy League rival.

“We wore the orange bows just for Alanna,” Phillips says. “But when I explained to her later that that’s Princeton’s color, she said blue is her new favorite color.”

— By Sam Rubin, Yale Sports Publicity

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