When a 53-year-old woman died from a stroke in 2007, doctors thought that her passing could save others in desperate need of an organ donation. The woman’s heart, lungs, liver, and both kidneys were donated to five severely ill patients. Every organ transplant comes with risks. But no one expected that one woman’s organs would spread breast cancer to four different people.
The original donor had passed without doctors realizing that her body had cancerous cells, and the organs were transplanted without knowing the danger. Five transplants were performed on five patients, each with unique needs, and within six years, four of them had passed away.
The person who received the donated heart died from sepsis, which is when the body attacks its organs in an attempt to fight infection. It’s unknown if that patient would have eventually developed cancer.
A 42-year-old woman, who received both the donor’s lungs, passed away after cancer started in her lungs and spread to her bones and liver.
The liver recipient, a 59-year-old woman, also passed away after cancer developed in her liver.
Doctors then contacted the recipients of the kidneys, a 32-year-old man and 62-year-old woman, and both were diagnosed with cancer. The woman passed away in 2014. The man survived after surgery to remove the donated kidney as well as chemotherapy.
Because the cancer originated in the breast of the donor, the cancers were all considered breast cancer. All four of the organ recipients who developed cancer were diagnosed with a similar type of breast cancer.
This is an extremely rare occurrence. Immunosuppressant drugs, which are prescribed to keep bodies from rejecting donated organs, may have contributed to the cancer going undetected at first. The authors of the case study, published in the American Journal of Transplantation, noted that the chance of spreading cancer through organ donation is between 0.01 and 0.005 percent. Other experts have estimated the risk to be about one in 10,000.
It may be that the donated organs were able to extend the patients’ lives a few years despite eventually being their demise.
Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.