Alicia Jeffreys, Detroit Pistons, Senior VP, Marketing
Alicia Jeffreys talks about her battle with cancer and the support she received from the Pistons and her family.
Clarence Tabb Jr., The Detroit News
Detroit — Not everyone in the NBA is an All-Star or MVP, and not all superstars are tall or uber-athletic.
Away from the court, there are everyday people who stand out because of what they’ve conquered and overcome in their personal lives.
In that way, Alicia Jeffreys is a superstar, neatly packed into a diminutive 5-foot frame. She’s a working mother of four and has risen through the ranks in the Pistons organization for almost 20 years, now serving as the senior vice president of marketing.
She’s a mother, a wife, a sister — and an inspiration to so many people in the organization.
She’s also a cancer survivor.
In 2008, Jeffreys was diagnosed with chordoma, a rare form of cancer that attacks the spinal cord and base of the skull. Chordoma is found in only about 300 Americans each year, which made Jeffreys literally one in a million, but not in a way that anyone would want.
That diagnosis started a multi-year journey that tested her faith, her perseverance and her inner strength. Throughout that time, she continued in her role with the Pistons — going back and forth to Boston for a litany of back surgeries and more than 100 radiation treatments — before being declared cancer-free in 2011.
Jeffreys was only 28 when she was diagnosed and she and her husband, Darrell, had been married just three years. The chordoma almost robbed her of her life, but she and Darrell wanted to start a family. That was her motivation for getting through the trials that cancer presented.
That makes this Mother’s Day — and each one since her ordeal began — a blessing.
“As a woman at that point in my life, all I wanted to do was be a mom. That was the biggest impetus for me to survive,” Jeffreys said. “When I was diagnosed, they gave me a seven-year survival time (without treatment).
“I wanted to be a mom so bad, so I had to get that life-and-death situation under control.”
Jeffreys’ situation took another problematic turn because her chordoma wasn’t confined to just one spot, as it is typically; the cancer was in three different locations: in her tail bone, in her lumbar and at the top of her spinal cord.
Her treatment plan called for most of her surgeries to be done at Massachusetts General Hospital, where the specialists could isolate and treat one location at a time, a lengthy process that would span more than two years. To reach the cancer, doctors had to remove two vertebrae and replace them with implants. After all the surgeries were done, including having her right kidney removed, Jeffreys had to learn to walk again and soldier through extensive physical therapy.
Jeffreys began an online journal called “Alicia Smiles” to recount her recovery. Her dozens of entries were a catharsis, and it also kept all of her extended family and co-workers updated on her progress, through all the ups and downs. One of her first entries came after her initial visit to her oncologist.
“I’m hopeful after the appointment that things will be manageable moving forward. Each day is a little bit brighter than the one before,” Jeffreys wrote. “Quote from the doctor: ‘God willing, you will live a long life happily ever after.’ … that sounds good to me.”
One entry in particular, on Oct. 13, 2010, marked the end of one stage of her life — and the beginning of her recovery.
“Today is the day when my story takes a huge pause. I’m finished. 116 radiation treatments and 7 surgeries over the past two years, ends today,” Jeffreys wrote. “I rang the bell for the third and final time signifying that treatment is finished and that we move forward from today.”
Double the blessings
After Jeffreys received her last radiation treatment, she was in her early 30s and still looking to start a family with Darrell. The doctors were concerned about her getting pregnant because of the back surgeries and the possibility of a recurrence of the cancer.
Alicia and Darrell waited more than a year, and she relayed a double dose of good news in a journal entry on Aug. 20, 2011.
“Dream. Struggle. Victory. Those are the three words that my husband used to start his testimony in church just a few weeks ago,” Jeffreys wrote. “Well, although there has not been much to report on the cancer front, which we are very glad of…We DREAMED of the day when we could expand our family and we STRUGGLED to make it a reality (having cancer for two years did not help) and now we have VICTORY.
“Darrell and I are happy to report that we will be blessed with two little lives in January. Yes, two! We are having twins. We are starting the second trimester and everything is going great.”
Jeffreys had preterm labor at 23 weeks and was put on strict bed rest, with only trips to the bathroom and for five-minute showers, to try to help keep the babies from arriving too early.
The struggle was worth it: the Jeffreys welcomed Mikayla and Kaia in January 2012, and with them came a new journey and a renewed faith in God.
“We struggled with the unknown as she battled through several surgeries, but we never lost faith in God’s promises,” Darrell said. “We rested on the fact that this was God’s plan and let Him have control which gave us the peace to see it through completion.
“We now live in victory as a testament to his healing grace, which can never be taken from us. We are forever grateful.”
Throughout her bout with cancer and her introduction to motherhood, Alicia has had significant support from her parents — who live in Flint — as well as her four sisters and brother, and from a brigade of friends and co-workers.
Her parents often stayed in the guest room in their home, which became “Lolo’s room” — or grandfather’s room — a nod to their Filipino heritage. Friends chipped in wherever they could help, bringing meals, providing a ride to an appointment, or just emotional support. Elizabeth Karolak, one of Jeffreys’ best friends, also worked with the Pistons at the time.
“She knew her goal was to be able to have children one day. She was engaged in decisions she was making because she knew one day she wanted to have a family. That was at the center of her mindset,” Karolak said. “She has a million-dollar smile and that’s what people recognized. She was an inspiration to a lot of people.”
In 2017, the Jeffreys decided to try to have another child. This time, they had a double helping of blessings — with another set of twins, Ava and Amaya. Although Alicia and Darrell had aunts and uncles who were twins, getting a second set for themselves came as a surprise.
Her relationship with her mother helped Jeffreys put everything in perspective and embrace motherhood with a new appreciation for everything her mom had done.
“I was very blessed to have a nurturing mother. She’s very quiet with her nurturing, but she was generous with time and love, and I was lucky to be born into that,” Jeffreys said. “She had a very calm spirit, so when I was sick, she was a calming influence. Through two sets of twins and chaos, her calm spirit carried me through that. She grounded me in the beauty of being a mom.
“This is what I wanted; this is beautiful.”
Still goin’ to work
Throughout her fight with cancer, Jeffreys was never too far away from the Pistons. Before working virtually became a thing, she had a Blackberry and a laptop to get work done when she could between surgeries and recoveries, radiation treatments and physical therapy. The Pistons also helped make accommodations with her health insurance so that she could get the out-of-market care she needed in Boston.
While most people would have taken extended time off to deal with their health issues, Jeffreys found it important to stay connected with the Pistons. That work ethic became an inspiration to her marketing team and to many others in the organization.
“To deal with what she’s had to deal with in her personal life and to be able to produce the type of work that she was doing before she went for the surgery — and then coming back afterward without missing a beat — speaks to her ability to balance life and to be able to thrive in adversity,” said Kevin Grigg, Pistons senior vice president of public relations, who started with the team in 2000, just before Jeffreys.
“She wouldn’t get to the point where she is today if she wasn’t a leader. She does that by example and through her ability to bring people together. That’s transcended into her current position today.”
When Jeffreys got her start in the Pistons’ marketing department in 2002, that group came up with the “Goin’ to Work” mantra, from a statement that then-team president Joe Dumars made in a press conference. That theme stuck with the Pistons for more than a decade, and it was emblematic of Jeffreys’ attitude toward balancing her job and her family through all of her trials.
Now Jeffreys is one of only two women on the Pistons’ senior executive team. That gives her a platform to express her ideas and viewpoints, but her progression also is a testament to her work ethic. She credits that drive to her father, who came to the United States in the 1970s. It’s a shining example for her co-workers of what true perseverance is and just how much Jeffreys has accomplished not only as a woman, but as a working mother.
“She’s an example and a standard for me. Sometimes, I’ll come to work and think that I’m tired — and then I’ll look at Alicia and think that I didn’t have to go home and deal with four kids,” said Erika Swilley, Pistons vice president of community and social responsibility. “Her level of tired is completely different. What she has gone through in her life on a daily basis puts things in perspective.
“She’s very humble and she literally not only champions me but those around her too. You cannot help but want to be better by just knowing her.”
In January, Jeffreys had trouble breathing, and in the midst of the pandemic, her assumption was that she had contracted COVID-19. After she tested negative, her condition didn’t improve and Pistons vice chairman Arn Tellem urged her to go to the emergency room to figure out the cause.
“She now calls me Pops because I told her to make sure to go in when she wasn’t feeling well,” Tellem said. “I said, ‘You have to go in and get checked — you’re too important to your family and to us.”
It’s a good thing she did.
Jeffreys was diagnosed with bilateral pulmonary embolism, or blood clots in both sides of her lungs. It was another mystery but going to the emergency room saved her life. Her heart was twice its normal size because of the blockages. Jeffreys said that if she hadn’t gone to the emergency room after Tellem’s urging, she could have died within days.
“She’s one of our superstars in our organization,” Tellem said. “She’s a joy to work with every day and we’re so proud of her on so many levels on her personal accomplishments with her family, and her work accomplishments.
“She’s the whole package. Being married to a superstar woman, I know how difficult it is to balance all the things between work and family — and she does it magnificently.”
Looking back at what she’s been through, Jeffreys realizes that her faith was tested — and rewarded — and her support network helped carry her through the many ups and downs. Her story is extraordinary on so many fronts, but unlike many superstars, she deflects the accolades and leans on her humility.
“When I was going through everything, my mantra was HOPE: How Ordinary People Endure.
“I started ordinary, but I endured,” Jeffreys said. “I appreciate every day. Here I am.”
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