Donating the Gift of Life

Donating blood and tissues after cancer is gaining acceptance.

BY LAURA BEIL
PUBLISHED: MARCH 13, 2013
Kevin Lewis has donated blood most of his adult life, but it took a friend with a rare blood disorder to show him just how lifesaving all those pints could be. At the time, he was in his 40s and pastor of a small rural church in his hometown of Bristol, Texas. One of his congregants developed a condition that left her body unable to produce enough red blood cells. She could not survive without transfusions every six months.

“Of all the medical advances, blood is the only one they can’t create in any way, shape or form,” says Lewis, now 51. “They can just about rebuild you from top to bottom, but they can’t replicate blood.” He set up regular appointments with Carter BloodCare, his local blood bank, to donate about every eight weeks. He continued the practice long after the woman had passed away.

But those donations abruptly halted in 2006, when doctors discovered melanoma on the side of Lewis’ face. The bean-sized lesion was successfully removed, but like most cancer survivors, Lewis thought his days as a blood donor had ended—that is, until he received a letter from blood center officials in 2009 telling him he could rejoin their ranks.

In much of the world, cancer survivors are universally excluded from donating blood or any tissue as a matter of extreme caution. But as the population ages, waiting lists for organs grow long and blood supplies are often in danger of running low, scientists are turning more attention to donors who might once have been categorically rejected. Research has found that many cancer survivors once denied are actually able to donate, and like Kevin Lewis, can do so sooner after their recovery than once thought.

Not too long ago, Lewis would have been barred from donating blood for five years after his cancer was gone. But Carter BloodCare changed the length of its deferral from five years to two in 2009, after concluding that such a long waiting period wasn’t necessary. “The medical department here took a very detailed look at what has been published in the literature,” says Jeanie Chiu, who serves as medical director of technical services at Carter. “There has never been a documented case of a solid organ cancer being transmitted through a blood transfusion.”

We get a lot of inquiries from former cancer patients. They are eager to give back to the community that was there for them in need.

As knowledge continues to evolve, few rules for donation are permanent or broadly applied, and probably will not be, experts say, with the exception of banning blood donations from people who have had Kaposi sarcoma or a blood cell cancer, such as leukemia or lymphoma. The guidelines for donating organs are even more complex than those for blood, because eligibility depends on so many variables, including the type of cancer a person had, the time since diagnosis, the stage and the kind of treatment used.

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