Left: In an effort to find a stem cell donor for Shira, her loved ones held swabbing drives on her behalf. Right: Shira (left) and her mother, Beth Corbin, on Mother’s Day in 2014. Photos courtesy of Shira Klein.
Every time she approached strangers to ask if they knew about donating stem cells, Beth Corbin wondered if that was the moment that would change everything. Would it be this Rockville lawyer or this Bethesda teacher who could save her daughter’s life? Shira, the always smiling Shira, who was captain of the cheerleading squad during her senior year at Bethesda’s Walter Johnson High School and now, at 35, had three young children and an increasingly grim prognosis: After several rounds of failed chemotherapy treatments, Shira Corbin Klein’s last shot at getting better was a stem cell transplant. Otherwise, she likely would die of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
That’s why Corbin found herself organizing a stem cell donor drive at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville in 2012. Like Shira, about 70 percent of cancer patients who need a stem cell transplant do not have a suitable donor in their family. Instead, they rely on the National Marrow Donor Program, through which potential donors can provide a cheek swab and become a member of a bone marrow donor registry.
“I hope I’m the one,” one woman told Corbin.
“I wasn’t planning to come today, but now I think this was meant to be,” said another. Comments like these gave Corbin faith—maybe fate had sent someone to the donor table that morning.
Corbin was hurt when people went out of their way to avoid her. “So many people need donors, not just my daughter,” she’d call out after people who were rushing by. “You might be a match for someone else.”
Shira’s mother, Beth Corbin (left), and her cousin, Wendi Sager, helped create a grassroots campaign to find her a stem cell match. They called it “Smiles 4 Shira.” Photo by Liz Lynch.
Some people just fear the unknown, she told herself. She thought about how different it would be if the people passing by were in her shoes, if their child needed a transplant and an act of kindness could save her. Before Shira got sick in December 2010, she was home with her baby boy, shuttling her older kids to ballet and soccer, worrying about what to make for dinner every night. Suddenly she was a young mother fighting for her life.
Corbin and her husband, Ken, were vacationing in Florida with Shira, her husband, Justin, and their three children—Rylie, then 7, Brayden, 4, and Lucas, 11 months—when Shira felt a lump in her neck. It was just after Christmas, and everyone was happy to be in the sunshine. They were so busy going to the beach and the pool that Shira didn’t think much of it—a weird virus, she assumed—but when her neck swelled with a lump the size of a tennis ball the day they were supposed to travel home, she forced herself to have it checked out. At the hospital, not far from where her family was vacationing, she and Justin talked about where they would have lunch that day and the New Year’s Eve party they would be going to when they got home. Two hours later, doctors told Shira they suspected she might have lymphoma, a cancer that develops in the lymphatic system, which is part of the body’s immune system.
Shira felt the room spin. How are my kids going to grow up without a mommy? Then her thoughts shifted to Justin: Both of his parents had died of cancer when he was younger. How could the world be so cruel?
Shira’s loved ones were on a mission: They would hold swabbing drives until they found a match for her. Photo by Liz Lynch.
Corbin’s phone rang while she was at the hotel watching Shira’s children. “Oh, come on,” she said to Justin when he delivered the news. Corbin thought he was joking. “It was just so unbelievable that someone so young, so healthy, could have cancer,” she says now.
Shira and Justin flew home to New Jersey with the children the following day, New Year’s Eve. Corbin, who had packed only summer clothes when she left her Rockville home a week earlier, went with them, while Shira’s dad went back to check on the family’s office furniture business, Global Distributors in Bethesda. When she arrived home, Shira refused to go to the hospital right away, as doctors had advised. Instead, she showered, got dressed and brought her kids into her bed to snuggle. “I didn’t know if I was going to be in the hospital indefinitely,” she says.
Volunteers at stem cell donor drives handed out swabbing kits. Photo by Liz Lynch.
When she got to the hospital, nurses reassured her that Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which was Shira’s ultimate diagnosis, was “a good kind” of cancer to have because cure rates tend to be high. Most common in people under 35, Hodgkin’s causes cells in the lymphatic system to grow abnormally, and in later stages can impact the body’s ability to fight infection.
Identifying the disease in its early stages can be tricky since the symptoms, which include fatigue, night sweats and loss of appetite, can be attributed to other things. “Of course I was tired,” Shira says, referring to her three young children. “I didn’t feel out of the ordinary.”
Shira started chemotherapy a week after she got home from Florida and continued the treatments for six months, into the middle of 2011. Over the next few years, she would go through a round of intense chemo, the cancer would disappear, and just as she started to put the nightmare behind her, a PET scan would reveal that it was back.
Doctors tried radiation, as well as a stem cell transplant using Shira’s own cells, a procedure that has proved successful in helping patients with lymphoma or leukemia. Shira’s stem cells were harvested and frozen before she was given high doses of chemotherapy to eradicate the cancer. When the cancer was gone, doctors injected Shira’s healthy stem cells back into her blood with hopes that the cells would settle into her bone marrow and produce more healthy red blood cells. But the procedure didn’t work—she went into remission and quickly relapsed. She had one last chance at getting better: She had to find healthy stem cells from someone else.
When Shira learned that she would need stem cells from a donor to save her life, her loved ones rushed to help. Many went to have their cheeks swabbed. Her younger sister, Dara, was not an exact match; neither were her parents or Justin. Her mother and father both were a half-match, meaning there were enough similar attributes to try a transplant, but there were also enough dissimilarities that her body might mistake the cells as invaders, causing Shira to get sicker. At the time, using stem cells from one of her parents seemed too risky.
Without knowing much about stem cell transplants, Shira’s relatives and closest friends set out on a mission: They’d hold swabbing drives until they found a match. They called their grassroots campaign “Smiles 4 Shira,” and when they started out, they had no idea how many lives they would change.
One night in September 2012, Shira’s cousin Wendi Sager held a meeting at her Bethesda home to talk about organizing local swabbing drives for Shira. Sager, a former lawyer who is now a stay-at-home mom, grew up playing with Shira. Their families lived a few miles apart in the Bethesda area, and they’d get together for dinner on weekends. In the summer, they would cram into a beach house in Ocean City, all the kids sharing space on the floor.
Shira’s cousins, her mother, and her four best friends spent the evening coming up with a plan to find a donor. They held a conference call with the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation and learned how to run a swabbing drive and how to send samples out for processing. They made a list of places that might be willing to hold a drive, including the Maryland School for Jewish Education, Equinox in Bethesda and B’nai Israel Congregation in North Bethesda. A friend offered to host a drive at her home in Potomac.
“It sent all of us into crisis mode,” Sager says. “We’d finally found a way to help.”
Deciding to ask the public for help wasn’t easy for Shira. She had tried for nearly two years to keep her illness from neighbors and acquaintances. “I didn’t want it in my kids’ ears all the time,” she says. Shira had told her mother that with three kids, she had no choice other than to get up every morning and live her life like she was always going to be there—her children needed to see that their mom was OK. After one of her treatments, when she was feeling particularly low, Justin brought Rylie to the hospital to see her. The little girl had to wear a face mask so she didn’t spread any germs to her mom. Shira sat and painted her daughter’s nails, and was feeling like herself again by the time Rylie left. “As a mom, you don’t want your kids to see you weak,” she says.
When her hair fell out, Shira let Rylie come wig shopping with her—she got a new wig and let her daughter pick out pink hair extensions. While undergoing treatment, Shira would drop off her kids at school in the morning, and then rest in bed all day so she’d have the energy to sit with them when they got home. “She didn’t want to fail at being a mom, no matter how bad she was feeling,” says Emily Wexler, one of Shira’s best friends from Walter Johnson. When Shira had to stay in the hospital, she helped with homework via FaceTime and ordered groceries for her family online.
She had decided not to dwell on being sick. In high school, she was the “mama bear,” friends say, the first to drop what she was doing if a friend needed something. Even while she was going through chemo, she insisted on hearing about her friends’ lives when they called to check in, rather than talking about her own. But privately, Shira says, she wrestled with an unsettling truth: She could die a young woman in her 30s. Her children could grow up without a mother; her college sweetheart, Justin, could become a widower. When Shira’s mind wandered to dark places, which happened when the kids weren’t around, she’d pull herself together with a simple mantra she and Justin shared: “You’re here right now. No one is telling you you’re not going to be here tomorrow. Move forward and live in the moment.”
She’d realized that if people knew she was a mother just hoping to watch her kids grow up, graduate from high school and walk down the aisle at their weddings, then a complete stranger might be willing to swab a cheek and potentially be her match. Justin wrote an appeal to the community and posted it on his wife’s Facebook page:
“What I need to achieve requires the commitment and participation of everyone I know, everyone they know, and everyone they know. I am reaching out for help to give Shira, the love of my life, the mother of my three beautiful children, Rylie (9), Brayden (6) and Lucas (2) a second lease on life,” he wrote. “I am asking you all to test yourself to see if you are a match for Shira—and if not, your efforts may just help someone else’s mom, daughter or friend who like Shira is fighting every day. The test is simple. It requires taking a Q-tip and swabbing your cheek—putting it in a package and sending it off to be tested. I need your help TODAY; not tomorrow, not next week, but today.”
It was Justin’s letter that inspired the meeting at Sager’s house and ultimately led to the swabbing drives organized on Shira’s behalf and the creation of Smiles 4 Shira. Shira’s friends and family in Bethesda and Rockville took the letter as a rallying cry.
Left: Shira’s mom donated her stem cells. Right: Shira had her transplant two years ago. Photos courtesy of Smiles 4 Shira.
Smiles 4 Shira held its first D.C.-area drive at the Maryland School for Jewish Education in Rockville, where Sager’s kids were enrolled in Sunday school. Sager did the swabbing, and Shira’s mom did the talking. Beth Corbin was dividing her time between home and New Jersey. She would drive to Shira’s house and spend weeks there helping with her grandchildren, who call her Mimi. She’d massage Shira’s feet while she was in the hospital, read her magazines to help her pass the time. When Shira’s kids had tough questions—When is Mommy coming home? Is she going to be OK?—it was often Corbin struggling to answer them. Even with all of that, Corbin continued to work remotely for Global Distributors, checking emails after she got the kids fed, bathed and off to sleep.
“If she needed me, I just went,” Corbin says. She was amazed at her daughter’s resilience, often telling her: “Shira, you have so much strength.”
By the end of the first swabbing event in Maryland, Shira’s family and friends had collected swabs from more than 100 people. “It was amazing to see how open people were to swabbing,” Sager says. Later it was learned that three of the people they swabbed that day were a match for somebody else. These drives might not only save Shira’s life, they realized, but others, as well.
“Finding a match for Shira became a full-time job for many of us,” says Robyn Churilla, a close friend of Shira’s who lives in Bethesda. Early on, one of Shira’s relatives or best friends was at every donor drive, but after a few months, word traveled to unexpected places. People Shira didn’t even know held swabbing drives in California and Texas. Sager put together a form letter, with information about swabbing, to send to anyone who wanted to hold a drive. Dr. Mark Taff, a Bethesda dentist, said he would put swabbing kits at the front desk of his office. An old high school friend offered to donate money and arrange for a photo of Shira and her kids to appear on billboards around the country, accompanied by the words “Save Our Mommy.”
“There’s just something about Shira. She’s beautiful, her kids are beautiful,” Churilla says. “It made people see themselves in her and want to help.”
Over time, Smiles 4 Shira volunteers had swabbed more than 10,000 people in 23 states and the District of Columbia, but Shira still didn’t have a match. The group had found matches for 110 other people, a development Shira found comforting. All of their work had paid off. Shira asked her cousin Wendi and her friends to keep holding drives. “I think it made her feel good to know that something good was coming out of her illness,” Churilla says.
During the next several months, eight patients received stem cell transplants because of matches made through Smiles 4 Shira drives. “We’d call Shira whenever a match was made, or to let her know another drive had been scheduled, but we tried not to bother her with the small stuff,” Sager says. Shira often was busy undergoing treatment—hoping to keep the cancer away while she waited for a transplant—or using whatever energy she had to take Rylie to dance class or watch Brayden’s basketball or baseball games. “She was always a mom first, a sick person second,” Corbin says. As weeks turned to months, it was tough for loved ones to remain optimistic.
“It was an incredible feeling to know that we were making matches for other people, but we still hadn’t found one for Shira,” Sager says.
In March 2013, more than two years after Shira’s diagnosis, her doctors told her she needed a transplant right away. “All my daughter, Rylie, wanted in life was to be my match,” Shira says. “But I didn’t want her to live with that pressure. What if it didn’t work?” Even if one of Shira’s kids was a match, doctors don’t like to use a child’s stem cells in a transplant for an adult because a significant amount of blood must be drawn from a donor during the procedure. There might also be a psychological impact: If the transplant wasn’t successful, Shira didn’t want her daughter to blame herself for not saving her mother’s life. Fortunately, doctors had another idea.
Shira, pictured with her husband, Justin, and kids, was honored at the Delete Blood Cancer Awards Breakfast in 2014. Photo courtesy of Delete Cancer.
Corbin knew that her stem cells were a half-match for her daughter. She had lived the last few years on standby: If at any point Shira needed her stem cells, Corbin was ready to donate them. “She would have done anything for me,” Shira says. When Shira’s doctor called Corbin to explain that they were going to try using her stem cells and mix them with a stranger’s umbilical cord blood, a relatively new procedure, Corbin was elated and anxious. What if her stem cells weren’t enough to help her daughter?
Corbin, who occasionally called Shira’s friends in tears when she was overcome with emotion, wanted to be at her best when she donated her stem cells. She took vitamin supplements, started eating better, eliminating flour and sugar, and worked out. “I wanted to be the healthiest I could be, so when they harvested my cells, they’d be strong,” Corbin says. “I don’t know if it made a difference, but it felt good to know I was doing what I could to be strong for Shira.”
Shira and her cousin, Wendi Sager, at Sager’s son’s bar mitzvah in March. Photo by www.bradleyimages.com.
In May 2013, Corbin went to New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City to donate her stem cells while Shira settled into a hospital room and began another round of chemo to ready her body for the transplant. “It was a pretty easy procedure,” Corbin says. She’d given herself an injection in each leg for five nights to prepare for the stem cell harvest. A couple of nights she slept on a cot next to Shira’s bed. On the day of the harvest, doctors drew her blood over the course of a few hours. Doctors warned that she might be tired afterward, but Corbin wanted to walk around Manhattan and do some shopping. “I felt great after,” she says. “Even if you’re a stranger and giving cells to somebody, I can’t imagine it not being one of the most amazing things you can do for someone. To have that ability to save someone’s life—it is a miracle.”
When she got back to Shira’s house in New Jersey later that night, Corbin’s grandchildren seemed to understand how important the day had been. Rylie asked her younger brother: “Brayden, do you have something to say to Mimi?” The boy shook his head, so Rylie cut in.
“You should tell Mimi thank you. She just gave Mommy life a second time.”
The boy smiled and said, “Thanks, Mimi, for saving my mom.”
It was the first time Corbin had ever cried in front of Shira’s children. She was careful to hide her tears so she wouldn’t worry them. But at this moment, Corbin felt more hopeful than ever. After years of kissing Shira’s boo-boos as a little girl, and holding her hand after chemo, she’d actually made her daughter better. Shira, just maybe, was going to be OK.
This past Thanksgiving, Shira and her family celebrated at her New Jersey home. “I can’t tell my mother that I love her enough,” Shira says. Corbin, who felt the happiest and most carefree that she’s felt on any holiday in years, drove up from Bethesda with Shira’s dad; Dara and her family flew in from Florida. In Shira’s kitchen, everyone used gel markers to write what they were thankful for on the sliding glass doors. “For good health,” one note said. “Stem cell therapy,” read another. “My family.”
Shira had just found out that she was still “clean,” or cancer-free, after 18 months. She says her doctors don’t want to declare her cured, but the transplant seems to have worked. In a letter of thanks, Shira recently told her mother: “How wonderful it is that it was you that saved me.” n
Brooke Lea Foster is a contributing writer for Psychology Today. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.