Extraordinary Case: 4 People Get Cancer From Donated Organs


There are rare instances wherein organ donors unwittingly pass infectious diseases to the organ recipients, but an even rarer occurrence is passing cancer through the transplant.

In Europe, four people who received organs from a single donor develop breast cancer many months to several years after the transplant. What are some important things to know about organ donations when it comes to cancer?

Cancer From Donated Organs

In 2007, a 53-year-old organ donor died from a stroke. As she had no known medical conditions that would disallow her from donating her organs and she did not test positive for any kind of cancer, her heart, lungs, liver, and two kidneys were given to different people.

However, 16 months after the organ transplants, the woman who received the lungs fell ill and was found to have breast cancer cells in the lymph nodes in her chest. DNA testing revealed that the cells belong to those of the donor and the recipient died within a year after the diagnosis.

As the person who received the donor’s heart died of unrelated causes shortly after the procedure, doctors notified the three remaining organ recipients of what had happened and had them tested, which turned out negative.

In 2011, however, breast cancer cells were found in the liver of the liver transplant patient. Because she did not want to go through another liver transplant in fear of possible complications, she opted to just receive radiation treatment for the cancer, which initially worked. Unfortunately, the cancer eventually returned and she died in 2014.

In 2013, the patient who received the donor’s left kidney was also found to have breast cancer cells in the donated organ. However, at the time of the discovery, the cancer had already spread to her other organs. She died merely two months later.

The last recipient, a 32-year-old male who received the donor’s right kidney, was diagnosed with breast cancer cells in the donated kidney. The doctors immediately removed the kidney and he also received treatment for the cancer. The man survived and is cancer-free.

Extraordinary Case

The authors of the report published in the American Journal of Transplantation describes the case as extraordinary. The patient had undetected cancer that spread but were too small to be detected by screening or imaging.

Unfortunately, it was easier for the cancer cells to grow in the body of the recipients because they had to take medications to suppress their immune systems so that their bodies would not reject the donated organs.

According to the American Cancer Society, the risks of passing cancer through a donated organ is actually extremely small, but it does happen. That said, it is ok for cancer survivors who want to help other people to donate their organs, but it does depend on the type of cancer and other conditions.

For instance, a person who has been cancer-free for a long time before the donation may donate his or her organs. In fact, even those who had brain cancer that did not spread beyond the brain stem may donate their organs. On the other hand, a person who was only recently diagnosed with cancer may not be allowed to donate organs.

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