Well, actually, “it” happens when you get diagnosed with any type of cancer (except for skin cancer).
I’m very sorry to have to tell you that this traditional right–donating our organs after death to others in need–simply gets . . . cancelled when you get cancer. If you become a long-term survivor, perhaps in some cases your donor status can be reinstated–but what if you don’t become cancer free?
Strong feelings about no organ donations
Someone posed this question about organ donation to me at a retreat we held recently for women with metastatic breast cancer. When they were told that they couldn’t donate their organs as they had originally planned, some of the women really felt cheated and angry–even though they all recognized why it wouldn’t be wise to transplant their organs into a healthy person’s body. Still, many of the women felt hopeless about never being able to make a difference in this way.
Another way to donate
But then I began telling the group about a wonderful three year research program here at Johns Hopkins (supported by a grant from the Department of Defense) that just ended. Initially called the Rapid Autopsy Program (and renamed by me to the Rapid Tissue Harvest Program), this unique study enrolled 20 women with metastatic breast cancer, all of whom gave us their enthusiastic permission to harvest their organs upon their passing, so that our cancer researchers could study how the cancer had behaved within their bodies.
Instead of offering a few specific organs for the purposes of transplantation, these women bequeathed all their organs to the scientists in the Rapid Tissue Harvest Program, who then examined both the cancerous and the non-cancerous specimens (some of these latter, interestingly enough, also turned out to be cancerous).
How this study worked
By freely giving such an incredible gift to research, these 20 women clearly wanted to know that their deaths would not be in vain. In return, we at Hopkins promised the funeral directors and families of these women that we would return the bodies of their loved ones in good condition and in a timely manner, so that the preparation and viewing of the bodies, as well as the burial or cremation rites, would not be delayed.
Could another such study be established?
I told the women at the retreat that this first study was over now, but that maybe a new study could be created if certain financial and logistical barriers can be removed. Then many other women with malignant cancer could give gifts that would help provide answers to such fundamental questions as:
- Why and how does cancer manage to travel from one organ to another?
- Why and how does it change its biomarkers on route?
- Why and how does it become resistant to treatment?
Providing answers to such questions as these would be a wonderful legacy–because, frankly, if breast cancer never left the confines of the breast, no one would ever die of the disease. Period. Just how wonderful would such a legacy be? Well, the facts and data gathered from the initial three year project have already altered treatment protocols for patients who are newly diagnosed with metastatic disease.
Since a new, ongoing version of the Rapid Tissue Harvest Program would have to serve many more women, our researchers would first have to solve some pretty complex technical problems in order to extract as much information as possible in the shortest amount of time. In an expanded program, we’d have to develop faster and more efficient methods for harvesting, processing, and preserving each donated organ.
Legal and financial hurdles
I hope that some of our lawmakers will consult with us and then attempt to fashion legislation making it possible for individuals dying from cancer to donate their organs for the betterment of all humankind. When you think about it, such a contribution would be like giving your organs to your grandchildren, because they’re the generation that will benefit from such research.
What are your thoughts about all this? This type of research seems to me like the right thing to do, but it will require funding. Any ideas on how to make it happen?