Donating Blood and Organs

Bob Riter
Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes
Last Modified: August 4, 2010

Bob and Queenie
Bob and Queenie

In my last column, I wrote about fumbling for words when the Red Cross called and asked if I would donate blood. I had just been diagnosed with cancer and found it hard to say, "I have cancer."

After the column appeared, a reader stopped me and asked, "Well, can you give blood after having cancer‚"

Good question. I promised her that I would find out.

In a similar vein (so to speak), I'm always stumped when asked if I'm an organ donor.

If I check the box, "Yes, I am an organ donor" I worry that whoever gets my kidney will get my breast cancer too.

If I check "No, I am not an organ donor," I feel like I have to justify it by writing, "I'd like to donate, but I've had cancer and they probably wouldn't want my organs anyway." (It's hard to fit all of that on the back of my driver's license).

It turns out that most people who've had cancer can donate both blood and organs.

According to the American Red Cross, a person can give blood if he or she is cancer-free and at least one year has elapsed since the completion of treatment. The waiting time was recently reduced from five years to one year.
Taking tamoxifen (commonly prescribed to prevent a recurrence of breast cancer) and many other drugs do not disqualify a person from giving blood.
The only cancers that prevent a person from donating blood on a permanent basis are leukemia and lymphoma.

An interesting article appeared in the medical Journal Lancet in May 2007. The researchers identified individuals who had received blood transfusions from people who were later diagnosed with cancer. These donors likely had early cancers that weren't yet detected. The study looked at the recipients of these blood donations and found that they had no greater risk of developing cancer than did the general public.

The bottom line is that I can give blood. I'm still a bit needle-shy from my months of chemo, but it's good to know that my blood is welcomed.

I was also happy to learn that I'm eligible to be an organ donor.

I called the United Network for Organ Sharing, the national organization that coordinates organ donations, and learned that they encourage everyone, even sick people, to check that they are organ donors. Upon death, they'll do a variety of tests to be sure the organs are usable. Cancer does not necessarily prevent a person's organs from being used to help someone else. It's the transplant team's job to sort out what they can use and what they can't.

That was a relief. I like checking the box "I am an organ donor."

Bob is the Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appear regularly in the Ithaca Journal. He can be reached at

Reprinted with Permission of the Ithaca Journal
Original Publication Date: August 19th, 2009

From the National Cancer Institute