EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 17, 2014

A mother's quest

Andover's Tina Habeeb trying to help find stem cell match for daughter with leukemia

By Bill Burt

---- — ANDOVER — Tina Habeeb admits, at 71 years old, she a was a rookie.

The Andover grandmother and mother of three adult children had zero experience with bad health.

“Absolutely none ... with me, with my children,” said Habeeb. “I didn’t realize how lucky I was.”

Then nine months ago, her only daughter, Cathy Sheehan, who is married (Tim) with three children (Audrey, 13; Nicole, 11; and Ethan, 7), complained of always being tired.

“I told her, ‘No kidding! You work five jobs!” recalled Habeeb, referring to her daughter’s job as account manager with Hewlitt-Packard as well as her part-time work teaching spin classes for 11 years at Latitude Sports Club in Salisbury.

After returning from a vacation and still struggling with fatigue, Sheehan went to the doctor on a Friday for blood tests. The doctor immediately ruled out mononucleosis but told her further testing would occur over the weekend.

On Monday, while at the hairdresser, Sheehan’s doctor called her cell phone and told her that she had leukemia and needed to get to the hospital immediately.

Fast-forward nine months later.

Habeeb read with great interest an inspiring story in The Eagle-Tribune two weeks ago about a 22-year-old Plaistow native who gave up the end of his college track career to go through the painful process of donating two quarts of bone marrow to a complete stranger with hopes of curing a rare form of leukemia.

As hoped, amazingly, the stranger has been completely cured.

It’s a story Habeeb, prays will be written again some day soon about her daughter, who is married and mother of three children in Boxford, and has Acute Myeloiad Leukemia.

But it’s not so much the happy ending that drove Habeeb’s interest, it was early in the story, when the young man, Cam Lyle, went to a “Be The Match” bone marrow registry drive at UNH and gave a “swab” from the inside of his mouth.

Two years later, he was found to be match for the man with leukemia.

Today, Habeeb’s daughter, Cathy, 44, who grew up in Methuen, is at Dana Farber hospital dealing with the daily struggles of having the potentially deadly blood disorder.

Tomorrow, from 9 to 11 a.m., a “Be The Match” registry drive, in Cathy’s honor, will be taking place at Latitude Sports Club in Methuen, near “The Loop.”

“That story really gave us hope,” said Habeeb, of the story on Lyle, who was named Eagle-Tribune Sportsman of the Year on Jan. 2. “Like a lot of people out there with this form leukemia, Cathy needs to find a match.”

One difference between Cathy’s illness is that she needs stem cells rather than bone marrow. The process of removing stem cells from an individual is much easier than bone marrow, which requires an overnight stay in the hospital and takes a long recovery for the donor.

Cathy’s younger brother, Chistopher Habeeb, was deemed a match and donated stem cells in the summer. The process usually takes about 100 days before being deemed a success. At Day 85, it failed, due to the presence of a bad gene (FLT3), which can make the leukemia worse.

She was back to square one.

“It’s not like having your appendix out and you deal with the pain or a certain part of your body,” said Habeeb. “This is your blood, all over your body. Every day is a new day with new challenges,” said Habeeb. “(Monday) was a tough day. (Tuesday) was a better day. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever been around.”

Currently, there is no match in the national registry for Sheehan.

Habeeb’s energy has been geared towards visiting her daughter every day in Boston at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and promoting the “Be The Match” drive.

In fact, tomorrow’s drive is one of several that have been done in Sheehan’s name. More than 50 people showed up at one in Newburyport, 300 people at Latitude’s in Salisbury and 70 people at Hewlitt-Parckard in Andover. A Hewlitt-Packard in New Mexico and another on a college campus in North Carolina were inspired by Sheehan’s fight.

All of the “swabs” go to a national registry.

The drive at Sheehan’s workplace in Salisbury proved fruitful as a match for another leukemia patient was found.

“Obviously, our goal is to find a match for Cathy,” said Habeeb. “But that’s why we are doing this, for awareness. We want to educate people about this illness and find as many donors as we can.”

The process at Latitude Sports Club tomorrow takes about 15 minutes, said Habeeb.

“You come in, sit down at the table, fill out the form, talk to the Dana Farber representative to make sure you’re eligible by asking a few questions, like ‘Have you been out of the country recently,’” said Habeeb. “They want to make sure you’re a candidate.

“Then you open your mouth. You swab yourself,” said Habeeb. “And you’re good to go. It’s that easy.”

Habeeb said she is holding out hope that somewhere, some place a donor for her daughter, Cathy, will be found.

“This experience has been an eye-opener,” said Habeeb. “I was unfortunately very ignorant about this, about a lot of things like blood and how everybody needs blood and that the platelets only have a shelf life of five days.”

As for her daughter’s daily fight, it’s just that ... a fight.

“This has been very difficult for Cathy, for her husband and kids ... for all of us,” said Habeeb. “But she wants to go through with this and do everything she can, even though the doctors wonder if she can handle it. She has a family and she wants to be with them.”



If you go What: "Be The Match" Bone Marrow Registry Drive, on behalf of former Methuen resident Cathy Habeeb Sheehan When: Tomorrow, 9 to 11 a.m. Where: Latitude Sports Club, 116 Pleasant Valley Street, Methuen (near The Loop). What: To give a mouth swab and see if you could be a bone marrow or stem cell match with someone with leukemia. It takes only 15 minutes for the entire process. For more info: Contact "Be The Match," Leigh Sullivan at 617-632-5694.