Can I Donate My Organs if I’ve Had Cancer?
Many cancer survivors want to help other people by becoming organ donors. For many people who have had cancer, it’s possible to donate—but this varies by cancer type and medical condition.
There’s always a pressing need for donated organs. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), the organization that facilitates every organ transplant in the United States, more than 110,000 people are waiting for organs. Some organ donations, such as kidney donation, may be done when a person is still living. Others are possible only if a person wishing to donate passes away under certain circumstances.
Can a donated organ give someone cancer?
The risk of passing on cancer to the person who gets an organ is very small, but there have been some reports in the medical literature of this happening. This is partly because organ recipients are given drugs to suppress their immune systems to help prevent rejection of the transplant. This may make their immune system unable to identify and kill cancer cells that may have been transplanted with the organ.
According to a study by UNOS, under certain circumstances there may be an acceptable risk in using organs from donors who have had certain types of cancer. This is particularly true if there’s a long cancer-free interval before the organ donation. At present, UNOS does not recommend accepting organs from people with “actively spreading cancer.” The exception to this is organs from donors with primary brain tumors that have not spread beyond the brain stem. These have not been found to impact life expectancy when compared to people who received organs from donors without brain cancer. In a study of nearly 500 organ recipients, no one got the disease from the donated tissue of a person who had brain cancer. Acceptance of organs for donation is up to each organ procurement agency and the organ recipient.
What if I’m not sure if my medical condition allows me to donate organs?
Some people with cancer may not qualify to be living donors due to their medical condition. (That is, they may not be able to donate a kidney or a lobe of their liver.) But some may still have organs and body tissues that can be used after they pass away.
If you want to donate, it’s OK to list yourself as a donor on your driver’s license. Be sure that your family knows of your wishes, too, since they may be asked to give consent. If your cancer has been actively spreading, internal organs will not be taken. But if you die after being cancer-free for a long time, your organs may be used. Other tissues, such as skin, tendons, and bone can often be used, too. Careful testing of the organs and tissues is done at the time of death. The decision about which organs or tissues can be safely used is then made by medical professionals, as long your family agrees that you wanted to donate.
Even if other organs and tissues can’t be used, donating the corneas from your eyes is one way to offer help to others. Almost all people with cancer (except those with certain blood or eye cancers) can donate their corneas. You can learn more about cornea donation from the Eye Bank Association of America (see the “To learn more” section).
If you have questions about whether you may be able to donate your organs or tissues, please contact UNOS or Donate Life America (see the “To learn more” section below) or the organ procurement center in your community.
To learn more
National organizations and Web sites*
United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS)
Toll-free number: 1-888-894-6361 (1-888-TXINFO1)
Web site: www.unos.org
Information on organ donation and transplant, myths about donation, and more about being a donor. Their patient Web site, www.transplantliving.org, gives objective and reliable information to empower patients and families before, during, and after the transplant experience.
Donate Life America
Phone number: 804-377-3580
Web site: www.donatelife.net
For information on organ, tissue, and cornea donations, as well as local state contact info
Eye Bank Association of America
Phone number: 202-775-4999
Web site: www.restoresight.org
Has information on cornea donation and transplantation; also maintains a list of US and international eye banks
No matter who you are, we can help. Contact us anytime, day or night, for information and support. Call us at 1-800-227-2345 or visit www.cancer.org.
Donor Alliance. Donation FAQ. What else would you like to know? Accessed at www.donoralliance.org/why-donate/donation-faq/ on October 17, 2012.
Eye Bank Association of America. Frequently Asked Questions. Accessed at www.restoresight.org/about-us/frequently-asked-questions/ on October 17, 2012.
Kauffman HM, McBride MA, Delmonici FL. First report of the United Network for Organ Sharing Transplant Tumor Registry: Donors with a history of cancer. Transplantation. 2000;70:1747-1751.
Nickkholgh A, Frey E, Krenzel C, et al. The need for vigilance in extended criteria donors with a past history of malignancy: a case report and review of literature. Ann Transplant. 2011;16(1):75-79.
United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). Home page. Accessed at www.unos.org/ on October 16, 2012.
United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). Transplant Living. Frequently Asked Questions. Accessed at www.transplantliving.org/community/patient-resources/frequently-asked-questions/ on October 16, 2012.
Warrens AN, Birch R, Collett D, et al. Advising potential recipients on the use of organs from donors with primary central nervous system tumors. Transplantation. 2012;93(4):348-353.
Last Revised: 10/18/2012