Making a Difference

CURE, Spring 2013, Volume 12, Issue 1

While Judy Ochs can't donate her organs to other patients, she's hoping science will get some use of it.

Before Judy Ochs received a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer in 2009, the notation “organ donor” appeared on her driver’s license. It’s a designation she proudly carried for years, reflecting her desire to help the medical system that first treated her cancer—she thought for good—in 1992.

Once her cancer returned with ferocity, she could no longer give back in the way she had planned. Her only option was to donate her body after death. But she wanted to do something specifically to advance breast cancer research. Problem is, there is no way to do that.

“You can donate your body, but there’s no system in place to harvest tissue [specifically] for metastatic breast cancer research,” says Ochs, 67, who lives in Lancaster, Penn. She wants to change that. After her upcoming retirement from her job at the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Ochs intends to work on a plan.

She says she wants to replicate the Rapid Tissue Harvest Program, a study conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins Avon Foundation Breast Center in Baltimore. “This would create a system for somebody who wants to be an organ donor but [otherwise] can’t be. There could be an indicator on a license to donate for [specific] research.” (Anyone interested can contact JudyOchs@comcast.net.)

How would such a program work? One way might be to have a network of academic research institutions that would be notified when a potential donor dies. Tissue could then be taken for study within an hour or two of death, and the body returned to the family for a viewing and funeral. Such a system might help researchers better understand the nature of metastatic disease and provide an option for patients who always wanted to be an organ donor. It is an organ donation that still saves lives because it can save the next generation from potentially getting breast cancer.

Ochs acknowledges that new ideas can be challenging to get off the ground, but that doesn’t discourage her. “I’ve seen what women can do when they work together. It has to start from the bottom up,” she says. “This actually restores my hope that I can make a difference.”