Can I Donate an Organ to a Person With Cancer?

January 2, 2020
Sonja Hibbs

More than 113,000 men, women, and children are on the national organ transplant waiting list, according to the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA). In some cases, a donated organ can greatly improve or even save the life of a person with cancer. If you’re interested in the possibility of donating an organ to a person with cancer, read these frequently asked questions to find out more about the donation process, including how to sign up to be a donor.

  1. 1. How can organ donation help people with cancer?

    There are certain types of cancer that include an organ transplant as a potential treatment option. For instance, a person with early-stage liver cancer may be able to have a liver transplant. A liver transplant can also be an effective treatment for certain types of hereditary amyloidosis, a rare protein disorder that may be associated with some blood cancers. Kidney and heart transplants may also effectively treat this disorder.  

    Aside from being used for organ transplantation, organ donation can also help lead to medical breakthroughs through research in cancer and many other diseases. While organs are considered for transplant first, they can’t always be used because of the donor’s health history or how they died. If the donor gave consent, non-transplantable organs can be donated to researchers at qualified medical research facilities. 

  2. 2. Can I donate an organ directly to a person with cancer while I’m still alive?

    It is possible. There are 2 types of organ donation: living donation and deceased donation. Living donation means you choose to donate an organ or part of an organ while you’re still alive. As an example, a living donor may be able to give a portion of their own liver to a person with liver cancer who is eligible for a transplant. The transplanted portion of the liver will grow into a functioning liver in the recipient. The donor’s liver will also regenerate and return to normal.

    Often, living donations occur between family members or close friends. You can also donate to someone you don’t know. A living donor must meet the medical criteria of the transplant center where the surgery would be performed and, if donating to a specific person, be medically compatible with the recipient.

  3. 3. Can I donate an organ directly to a person with cancer after my death?

    During the deceased donation process, there’s a chance that an organ you donate will go to a person with cancer. However, there’s no way to guarantee it. When a person dies or is nearing death, a hospital is required by federal regulations to notify its local organ procurement organization (OPO). If a donation moves forward, the OPO coordinates the organ donation process with the national Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN), which runs a database of every person in the U.S. needing a transplant. When donor organs are available, the database identifies potential recipients ranked by specific factors and organ policies.

  4. 4. Can I donate an organ if I’m a cancer survivor?

    In many cases, yes. While cancer survivors often can’t be living donors, deceased donation could still be an option. When you die, the transplant team will decide if your organs are eligible for transplant by reviewing your entire medical history. Considerations include the type of cancer you had, which organs were affected, and how long you’ve been cancer-free. While it’s extremely rare for cancer to spread from an organ donor to an organ recipient, it has occurred.

    Usually, people with cancer who are currently in treatment can’t donate their organs. However, donors with a brain tumor that hasn’t spread to other parts of the body can sometimes be an exception to this general rule.

  5. 5. How do I sign up to be an organ donor?

    It’s easy. You can sign up online through your state’s registry at the U.S. government website in just minutes. Or, you can sign up at your local department of motor vehicles. Many states allow you to choose which organs you want to donate and whether you want to be a tissue and cornea donor. You can also indicate that you want your organs to go to research if they aren’t eligible for transplant.

    It’s important to know that only 3 in 1,000 people die in a way that allows for them to be organ donors, according to HRSA. Typically, it’s only possible when a person dies in a hospital or while they’re on artificial support. That’s why more people are needed to sign up to be potential donors.

  6. 6. Who should I tell that I’m an organ donor?

    After you sign up to be an organ donor, make sure you tell your loved ones. If you’re over 18, signing up in your state’s registry means you’ve given your legal consent to donate your organs for transplant. Nobody can change that consent after your death. You may also want to include your desire to donate your organs in an advance directive, which is a legal document that tells your family and health care team who you would want to speak for you if you become too sick to make decisions for yourself.  

  7. 7. What other types of donations can I make to help people with cancer?

    In addition to organ donation, you may also want to consider:

    • Blood or platelet donation. Many people with cancer need extra blood during or after treatment. You can either give whole blood or just a portion of your blood called platelets. Blood donors are vital because there are no artificial blood substitutes.

    • Biospecimen donation. Researchers need biospecimens from people with cancer and without to find better ways to prevent and treat cancer. Biospecimens are samples from your body, such as blood, urine, saliva, or tissues from biopsies or surgeries. Ask your doctor how you can donate a biospecimen to cancer research.

    • Bone marrow donation. A bone marrow transplant—also called a stem cell transplant—can be used to treat and sometimes cure certain types of cancer. Donating the blood-forming stem cells that make these transplants possible can be as easy as a blood draw. Learn more about the bone marrow donation process.

    • Umbilical cord donation. Are you pregnant? The blood in your umbilical cord could save the life of a person with cancer. Like bone marrow, umbilical cord blood contains crucial blood-forming cells for bone marrow transplants. The 5-minute donation process is painless and safe for you and your baby.

    • Whole body donation. There are medical schools and private programs that accept whole body donations for medical research, including for cancer. Consider looking for a program that’s accredited by the American Association of Tissue Banks. For more information, talk to your doctor or local medical school.

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