ForkCancer: Aldredge draws strength from mother’s toughness

After more than a year of uncertainty due to COVID-19, life was finally returning to normal for assistant coach Stacey Aldredge and the Northwestern State volleyball program. 

In an instant, however, even during a routine trip to the store, your entire world can change. 

Aldredge, formerly DiFrancesco, made a simple trip across a bridge in downtown Natchitoches that she’s made thousands of times before, this time it led her to an utterly different place. 

“I talk to my mom every day, we’ve always done that,” Aldredge said. “I was going across the Church Street bridge heading to the store, and I called her since I didn’t hear from her the day before, just to check in. She told me she had been admitted to the hospital and they weren’t really sure what was going on, but they thought it was cancer. 

“I immediately felt my stomach fall to the ground. I pulled over because I was sobbing uncontrollably and remember thinking this can’t be real. I was just praying and crying. About a week later we found out from the bone marrow test that it was leukemia.” 

Words no person wants to hear. 

In early July, a week after her son’s wedding, Diann DiFrancesco got the call from her doctor that her white blood counts were dangerously low. After several weeks of feeling “off,” that prompted the initial doctor’s visit, the call and subsequent admission to the hospital put in motion a series of tests and treatments that opened a new world for Aldredge and her family. 

The Lady Demons (8-14, 2-5) host their annual #ForkCancer game on Thursday against New Orleans (1-14, 1-6) beginning at 6:30 p.m. in Prather Coliseum. After four years of playing in the annual event and a handful more as a coach on the sideline, this one means just a little bit more for Aldredge and her family. 

“I feel like I stepped up in those games and so did my teammates because we were fighting for other people not just ourselves,” she said. “Obviously this game Thursday is going to be very personal for me.  

“I can only do so much as a coach, but it’s, ‘How can I be the best coach to help my girls fight for other survivors or people who are warriors right now going through that hard time?’. Doing whatever I can to help prepare them to go to war and keep fighting like all the people like my mom are.” 

The treatment of DiFrancesco’s acute myeloid leukemia began immediately and after rounds of testing, it was determined that a stem cell transplant would be needed. 

Even during her time as a player for the Lady Demons from 2011-14, Diann and Stacey would speak on a regular basis, creating a bond unlike many others between a mother and daughter. That close-knit relationship and the miles between Natchitoches and her hometown of The Woodlands, Texas, have made the past few months some of the hardest. 

“That’s your best friend and you only get to see them through a screen,” Aldredge said. “How the treatments were wearing on her body. You know the cancer is there, but the physical effects hit you harder.  

“It’s been hard but I think it’s made us all so much stronger as individuals. They say you don’t realize what you can handle until you’re going through it, so I think I’ve become so much stronger for my family. We’ve all held on to each other.” 

The regular phone calls became mandatory twice-a-day FaceTime calls as the volleyball season rapidly approached and Aldredge devoted the bulk of her time to preparing for the new year, using the same fight her mother has displayed through her treatment. 

“Life’s not easy sometimes,” Aldredge said. “It can be hard, but you can either choose to roll over and be down and mad at the world or you can learn to step up, keep chugging away, be positive and fight through it. It’s been hard being away from her but I’m passionate about volleyball, I love these girls and I’m doing something that I like to do.” 

With the return to a normal fall schedule and an influx of new players this year, Aldredge has leaned on her knowledge of the offense to help usher a young group of attackers and setters along. While there are still things to accomplish, the work and the season have provided a respite from the potentially overwhelming thoughts that accompany a cancer diagnosis.  

“It’s kept me busy, so I don’t just sit and dwell,” Aldredge said. “This has been a crazy season after COVID. It’s finally a normal season like what it has always been but this one feels a little extra crazy. It has been good to be able to keep my mind off just her and focus on other things, the girls, the program. It’s been a nice escape.” 

After one round of chemotherapy treatments Diann is in remission and awaiting her stem cell transplant. Eyeing an early November date, preparations have already begun for the transplant by DiFrancesco and the donor, her son Chris. 

“It’s so cool that my brother gets to be the donor,” Aldredge said. “He’s saving mom’s life. She is one tough lady. She’s my hero, my role model and someone who always makes lemonade from the lemons life gives you. She’s done that my whole life still done it over the past few months.” 

Northwestern State fans can give back to those like Diann DiFrancesco throughout this week by texting “FORKCANCER” to 71777 and making a donation to the American Cancer Society. 

Photo Credit: Gary Haradamon