By Ann Reily
---- — When Cathy Sheehan was diagnosed with leukemia in April, her co-workers at Latitude Sports Club in Salisbury wanted to help.
Fitness director Stephanie Bearse suggested at the time that they could have a bone marrow registry drive should Sheehan need a transplant. However, it turned out that Sheehan’s younger brother, Christopher Habeeb, was a perfect match, so when she did need the transplant in June, he was her donor.
Now, seven months later, Sheehan, 44, needs a second bone marrow transplant. Though the first transplant was successful and she went into remission for a couple of months, the cancer has returned. Habeeb is ineligible to donate again, and there is no match in the national Be the Match Registry for the former Merrimac and Newburyport resident.
After hearing the news, Sheehan’s good friend and fellow spin instructor Tanya Vecchi asked Bearse if the offer to host a drive was still good.
It was, and the Elm Street gym has teamed up with Dana-Farber Cancer Institute for a bone marrow registry drive tomorrow from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m.
“Even if one person gets registered, it’s one additional person that could save somebody’s life,” Vecchi said.
Sheehan, who lives in Boxford, thought she was fine when she went in this spring to see a new doctor, Lydia Jeffcoat, in Newburyport, for a routine appointment. She had been going to Boston for her medical care but wanted to switch to a place closer to home.
After getting a booster shot for whooping cough, Sheehan noticed a week later that she was feeling really tired and was sometimes short of breath after going up or down stairs. Though she attributed the fatigue to being a working mother of three, she was concerned enough to call Jeffcoat, who suggested she come in for blood work.
When the results were abnormal, Jeffcoat suspected she might have mono and had her continue to come in for tests regularly.
“There really weren’t any symptoms,” Sheehan said. “I was tired.”
After a vacation in Florida, Sheehan came in for her latest tests, which showed that her white blood cell count was “down to nothing.”
She was referred to an oncologist at Coastal Medical Associates, where she had a bone marrow biopsy. Three days later, she found out she had acute myeloid leukemia, which starts inside bone marrow and grows from cells that would normally turn into white blood cells, according to the National Institutes of Health.
“It was pretty shocking,” said Sheehan, who immediately started chemotherapy and radiation.
But she said it helped that she felt well when she began treatment and credits Jeffcoat for helping her catch it early.
“She wanted to get to the bottom of it and figure out what was going on,” she said. “She was really diligent.”
Now a patient at Dana-Farber, Sheehan is currently on a drug to suppress the leukemia while she waits for a donor. She is on leave from both Latitude, where she has been an instructor for 11 years, and Hewlett-Packard, where she is a senior account manager.
And even if tomorrow’s drive doesn’t produce a donor for her, she’s grateful that it will at least help raise awareness and possibly aid another one of the thousands of patients who need transplants.
“A lot of people want to help, and they don’t know how to help,” she said.
Joining the registry is a simple, painless process that involves a quick swab of cheek cells. Anyone in good health between the ages of 18 and 44 is eligible.
Participants tomorrow will be greeted by representatives from Dana-Farber along with Sheehan’s husband, Tim, and three children, Audrey, 13; Nicole, 11; and Ethan, 7. A number of her friends will also be in attendance, though Sheehan herself is under doctor’s orders to stay home.
While joining the registry is free for those under 45, older adults (up to age 60) are required to pay a $100 fee and can only register online. Anyone who cannot attend tomorrow can also register on the Be the Match website.
So what happens when someone is found to be a match for a patient?
As long as a potential donor agrees, more testing will be done to confirm the match. The donor will then either be asked to give bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cells, depending on what treatment the doctor has determined is best for the patient.
Donating bone marrow is a surgical procedure done under anesthesia. Needles are used to draw liquid marrow out of the pelvic bone. Most donors go home the same day or the next morning.
Extracting stem cells is an outpatient process in which blood is removed through a needle in one arm and passed through a machine that separates out the blood-forming cells. The blood is then returned through the other arm.
About 1 in 540 U.S. Be the Match Registry members go on to donate bone marrow or stem cells to a patient. For more information on either process, visit www.bethematch.org.
While she waits for a donor, Sheehan has been doing her best to remain upbeat and says that her family has been a huge help.
“They’ve been amazing,” she said. “We have our days, but we’re very open with everybody. I think it’s important to be that way with your kids. They’re very much involved.”
She has also received an outpouring of support from the co-workers at both her jobs, as well as from the community.
“People have been amazingly generous with their prayers and everything,” she said. “We’ve had an amazing experience just with people reaching out and wanting to help. We feel fortunate to be in such a great community.”
“It’s just been such a hard thing,” Vecchi said. “She’s doing an amazing job trying to stay positive. She continually wants to try to help people. She’s still trying to help and give back.”
If you go
What: Bone marrow registry drive
When: Tomorrow, 8:30 to 11:30 a.m.
Where: Latitude Sports Club, 191 Elm St., Salisbury
Who’s eligible: Adults between the ages of 18 and 44 who meet the health guidelines
The process: It takes about 15 minutes to register. Participants will be informed of the donation procedure, fill out a consent form and have a cheek swab.
More information: www.bethematch.org