Blood & Organ Donation After Cancer

Tainted Blood?

Since having cancer, I think about emergencies and end-of-life issues probably more than other folks. I’m still in the process of getting organized per my previous post, Exit Strategy, trying to plan for potential future health crises, updating my will and my retirement savings plan, giving my friends extra keys to the house, etcetera and so forth. I’m not yet due to renew my driver’s license, but I checked, just in case. And like many other people, I specified myself as an organ donor on my license a long time ago.

About a decade or so ago, I met a woman whose ten-year-old daughter developed cancer and liver failure from chemo. Her cancer was in remission, but she desperately needed, among other things, a liver transplant. A donor liver became available, it was a match, the tissue was carefully tested, and the transplant took place. It went well. Her little girl survived, tolerated the anti-rejection meds, began to regain some of her health, and then, unexpectedly, died. Apparently, the liver she had received contained cancer cells. Because her immunity was suppressed by the anti-rejection drugs, her T cells and other cells could not identify and fight these occult cancer cells, so the cells rapidly turned into full-blown cancer, and robbed her young life. They were able to determine that the liver cancer was not mets that might have developed from the cancer she’d been treated for. It more than likely came from the donor. It was devastating.

So, I looked at my license, and remembered this little girl. And wondered, would anyone want my organs anymore? I would never, ever want to donate an organ that transmitted a deadly legacy. Do I just forget about donating anything now that I’ve had cancer? I assumed so, but I decided to do a little research.

Turns out it’s not as cut-and-dried as I thought.

Blood Donation

The American Red Cross lists eligibility requirements and other details for blood donation on their site. Some of them surprised me. Did you know that, if you are a woman, in order to donate red blood cells, you have to be at least 5’5″ tall and weigh at least 150 pounds? For other blood components, you have to be at least 17 and weigh at least 110 pounds. Just adding a little edit here, on 4/4, to clarify this a little. If you are female, you don’t have to be 5’5″ or weigh any more than 110 pounds to donate blood; they can use everything — white blood cells, platelets, etc. — but the red blood cells if you are shorter than that or weigh less than 150 pounds. These are also the requirements for the American Red Cross. Many other organizations do blood drives and may have different requirements.

The American Cancer Society lists the precautions that apply to cancer patients. From the site:

While cancer has very rarely been transmitted through transplants of solid organs such as kidneys, there have been no reports of cancer transmission by blood transfusion. To check this, a group of researchers looked back in time at people who had received blood from donors who had developed cancer within 5 years of giving the blood. They found no increased cancer risk in those who got blood from those who were found to have cancer soon after donating.

The ACS states some obvious precautions, that you cannot donate blood if you are being actively treated for cancer, or if your cancer has spread or recurred, or if you’ve had leukemia, lymphoma or Kaposi’s sarcoma as an adult. Otherwise, if you stay cancer-free (meaning, for most of us NED or No Evidence of Disease) for 1 to 5 years after treatment, you can donate blood. If your cancer treatment involved only surgery to remove a non-invasive tumor, then you need only wait until you’ve recovered fully from your surgery. Visit the links for more information.

Organ Donation

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services maintains a website about organ donation. It states that, “There are few absolute exclusions [for organ donation] (such as HIV infection, active cancer, systemic infection) and no strict upper or lower age limits.” According to the American Cancer Society site, the tragic story of that little girl is rare, but not unheard of, for the reasons described.

But even if you’ve had cancer, some of your tissue and organs may still be safely donated. Kidneys are often donated from living donors. For other donations, if you have active cancer at the time of your death, your internal organs will not be used, but tissue like skin, bone and the corneas from your eyes may still be safe. The ACS site has links to the United Network for Organ Sharing, which provides details about the process of donating and signing up if you need a donation.

Bone Marrow Donation

The eligibility requirements for bone marrow donation are, understandably, more restricted. The City of Hope website explains them thoroughly. In general, with few exceptions, you cannot donate bone marrow if you have a history of cancer. However, you can donate bone marrow if you’ve had only basal cell skin cancer or in situ cancers, like DCIS, for example, or one of those lovely in-situ cancerous colon polyps, like the one I had removed early this year [see Dodging Those Cancer Bullets]. Further information about bone marrow donation and transplant may be found at Cancer.Net. Hmm. Since I am evidently so far only a two-time member of the Non-Invasive Cancer Club, I could donate even bone marrow without feeling like I might do more harm than good.

Paying It Forward

I know a healthcare clinician, a wonderful, endearing and competent woman I’ve known now for about twenty years, whose husband needed a kidney transplant. After screening his family members and checking the donor registry with no success, she decided — despite the odds — to have her tissue evaluated as a possible match. And lo and behold, she was a good match! So, a few summers ago, she donated one of her kidneys to her husband. And today, they are both well and healthy. Pretty incredible. Brings tears to my eyes just thinking about how they must both have felt at their success. You never know, do you?

For those of us who’ve had cancer, if we regain some measure of health, we often want more than ever to help someone else stay alive. Many of us are haunted by feeling like we are forever tainted by cancer. Before I researched this post, I couldn’t imagine that any of us could still donate our blood, organs or tissue. It’s good to know that, with suitable caution, we still can.


Have you ever donated or received a donation of blood, organs or bone marrow? Do you know someone who has? How do you feel about it now?


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This entry was written by Kathi, posted on Tuesday, April 03, 2012 at 02:04 pm, filed under Life & Mortality, Making A Difference, Survivorship and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

14 Responses to “Blood & Organ Donation After Cancer”

  1. Thanks for the great info, Kathi! I discovered some of this when my mother died of mesothelioma and we found out we could have her corneas donated. I wonder about what my license should read since I’d rather err on the side of NOT donating as opposed to allowing them to harvest organs that should not be donated now that I’m Stage IV.

  2. Interesting post, thanks. I went to give blood a year or so ago and they (not the red cross – a local hospital – where I was treated for cancer FWIW) said they could not accept my blood. It was a pretty yucky feeling. As you said, giving back is important to me. They couldn’t explain why and neither could my oncologist. They did say that the Red Cross did not have that policy. I haven’t donated yet through the red cross and now I find out I’m too short and too thin?? I guess that’s changed since I last donated several years ago. It’s too bad.

  3. Kathi I have to say I haven’t given this a 2nd thought since I was diagnosed… How very sad that I likely shouldn’t be an organ donor. And I can’t be a blood donor anymore? Wow. That really sucks! Thank you for writing about this!

  4. Ren & Julie, I just tried to clarify things a little on blood donation. If you are not in active cancer treatment & are NED for 1-5 years, you can still donate blood if you weigh at least 110 lbs., no height requirement. They just may not use the red blood cells; but the other blood components are used.

    Lori, I’m still not sure how I feel about all of it. I think I myself will wait for a few more years of NED before donating blood again, and I definitely don’t feel like I should donate bone marrow. I still don’t feel like my own immune system is back up to snuff. It has to be an individual decision, that’s for sure.

  5. Kathi,
    This is such an informative post. Thank you. I’m not even sure when my driver’s license expires, but I know it says I’m an organ donor on there. Do I need to change that? I’m still confused on the organs…

    The story of the little girl is so terribly tragic. And then on the opposite end of the spectrum, your clinician friend’s success story is wonderful.

    Thanks for raising awareness about an issue I had not even thought of.

  6. Hi Kathi,

    WOW! Love this posting; it really opened my not-yet-donated eyes. I was always under the impression that I could never donate blood, something I wanted to do for awhile. I felt tainted. Here’s the thing: how can anyone know whether they have an active cancer? I guess medical science does its best to screen people. My breast cancer was active for years before it was discovered.

    A great post and very informative.

  7. All we can go by is whether we are NED when we donate, Beth. Different blood centers have different criteria, too.

    Beth & Nancy, the organ thing is weird, but I’m keeping my designation as a donor on my license. It seems that they do confirm one’s medical history after death, and there seems to be something that can be useful to somebody from almost any donor. Really amazing, when you think of it.

    This whole project of mine, to plan my ‘exit strategy,’ has really been an eye-opener for me!!

  8. What an interesting post, Kathi. I am knocked flat by the story of that little girl. My name is on the Australian Organ Donor Registry and I carry the relevant card in my purse – I hadn’t thought about the issues that a cancer history could create with this. I will give the matter some thought, but am inclined to keep things as they are – family are still contacted before any harvesting takes place, and I will let relevant people know that it is crucial to mention my cancer history if the call ever comes. They could presumably take my corneas, at least!

    Your post reminds me of an episode from when I was working as a social worker in a palliative care ward. Towards the end of the week, a man with advanced cancer was admitted who had a very complex family background including estrangement from many key people. I spent a lot of time talking with him about who he wanted contacted if he lost decision-making capacity and what his wishes were for after death, and set this information out in detail in his notes. Perhaps I sensed something, because his condition deteriorated rapidly and he died over the weekend. The nurse manager who had been in charge on the weekend called me to say thanks for the detailed notes – apparently they were crucial in enabling the donation of his corneas to proceed. His sister (and main support person) had felt very good about this outcome. It felt really good of having played a role in enabling his wishes to be fulfilled. It also enhanced my resolve to have my organs harvested if the time ever came – I never foresaw that complexities may be created by cancer, though! Thanks for prompting me to think about it.

  9. PS I am amused by your Captcha – am using it as a little post-chemo brain exercise!!! Am embarrassed to confess that I’m having to give the questions a bit of thought…

  10. Wonderful news, Kathi! I gave blood several times before I first got cancer in 1996. Then I was afraid to do it for fear of spreading the disease or weakening my own immune system. I’m so thankful you wrote this post, freeing me up to give my blood the next time there’s a blood drive. Brava, dear lady! xx

  11. Thank you so much for this post. I really wanted to be able to donate bone marrow and felt useless that I couldn’t but I know I’m not alone and at least I can still donate blood and if ever needed hopefully donte my organs. Sarah x

  12. Like usual you have provided information like no one else can. I am shocked to know it is different than what doctors have been telling me. I need to have another talk with my oncologist on my next visit. Thank you Kathi

  13. Farida, the rules may be different in India than they are here. You might want to check with the local equivalent of the Red Cross or an Indian organ donor/transplant registry to find out for sure. But glad to help. xoxo

  14. Why viewers still make use of to read news papers when in this technological world the whole thing is accessible on web?

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