Donating the Gift of Life

Donating blood and tissues after cancer is gaining acceptance.

Here’s one perspective: In 2005, experts reviewed data from the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network/United Network for Organ Sharing (the organization that manages the country’s organ transplantation system) during 2000 to 2005 and reported that out of 175 recipients of organs from patients with a history of grade 4 gliomas, only one donor transmitted a malignancy to three recipients, a 1.7 percent incidence of transmission. During the same time, almost 40,000 people died waiting for a new organ. One of the most recent studies to examine the risk of cancer transmission from organ donation was published in the American Journal of Transplantation in 2011. Experts found great variability in the risk. Some tumors, such as single, small thyroid tumors or kidney tumors that were small and could be surgically removed, were classified as minimal or low risk. But others, such as lung cancer or any kind of metastatic cancer were deemed highly risky for transplantation.

A clearer pattern has emerged for blood donors. In 2010, researchers from Australia reviewed available data about whether cancer had been transmitted through a transfusion. The reason for the study, they said, was because many parts of the world permanently exclude anyone with a history of cancer, regardless of severity or years they’ve been cancer-free, from donating blood. “Yet after nearly a century of blood banking, there have still been no convincing reports of a malignancy transmitted from donor to recipient via blood transfusion,” they wrote in Transfusion Medicine Reviews.

[Read how Judy Ochs is finding ways to donate for cancer research]

“When you think about it, it makes sense,” says Lillie Shockney, a registered nurse and administrative director of the Johns Hopkins Avon Foundation Breast Center in Baltimore. Blood recipients are more likely to have immune systems that could fight any stray cancer cells. “Let’s say a blood donation did have circulating cancer cells in it. They would be considered foreign to the recipient. The T cells in the recipient should find them and kill them.”

Shockney’s institution participated in the Rapid Tissue Harvest Program, a three-year study in which 20 women with metastatic breast cancer agreed to have all their organs—cancerous and noncancerous—harvested shortly after death so scientists could examine them in an attempt to understand how their cancer grew and spread. “If breast cancer never left the breast, no one would ever die of this disease,” she says.

Knowledge from that study and others may one day clear more cancer survivors for blood and tissue donation. Meanwhile, says Kevin Lewis, “don’t let cancer stop your ability to help other people. Obviously some cancers will defer you, but they are doing more and more research. I was told at first I would be deferred indefinitely. Don’t give up on it.”

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