Organ donation and cancer

Can you be an organ and tissue donor if you have had cancer? Samantha Nicholls answers this question and explains how organ donation can save seven lives.


Cancer survivors can donate

Many cancer survivors want to help other people by becoming organ and tissue donors. And you can. It is possible for many people who have had cancer to donate, but it varies by cancer type and medical condition. 

The decision about which organs/tissue will be transplanted is established at your time of death. Medical tests will only be carried out at the time of death. This involves medical professionals evaluating your medical and social history, carrying out blood and culture tests and conducting a physical examination. This is done to ensure that your organs and tissue is suitable for donation. The medical professionals will therefore determine at this time if your organs/tissue can be used. Your family will be approached at this point to give consent.  

The difference between organ and tissue donation

An organ transplant takes place after an individual has been declared brain dead but is still being supported on a respirator, whereas tissue retrieval can take place several hours and even days after death.

Another difference is that the recipient will receive the donated organ shortly after retrieval, whilst tissue is usually stored in a special Tissue Bank. Therefore, available for use as and when needed.

Which organs can be transplanted?

Your heart, liver and pancreas can save three lives and your kidneys and lungs can help up to four people. You can save seven lives.

Which tissues can be transplanted?

You can help up to 50 people by donating your corneas, skin, bone, tendons and heart valves.

Can I agree to donate only some organs/ tissue and not others?

Yes. Please inform your family which organs/tissue you do not wish to donate.

How soon after death should the organs/tissue be removed?

It is essential that organs are removed as soon as possible after brain death has been declared to ensure successful transplantation. 

Legislation requires brain death to be certified by two independent doctors. 

How do doctors know I am brain dead?

Two doctors, who are completely independent of the transplant team, must perform detailed tests before a person can be declared brain dead. 

The criteria for brain death is strictly adhered to and accepted medically, legally and ethically in South Africa and internationally.

Is there any cost involved?

No. It costs nothing to sign up as an organ/tissue donor, and your family will not incur any costs. 

The hospital or Tissue Bank will cover all medical expenses from the moment your family has given consent for the donation of organs/tissue.

Does being a donor delay the funeral?

No. As soon as the donated organs/tissue has been removed, the body is returned to the family to bury or cremate.

Does organ/tissue donation leave my body disfigured?

No. The utmost respect and dignity is given to the donor. The recovery of organs and tissue is carried out with great care by surgeons and trained staff and the process does not change the way the body looks.

Are there religious objections to transplantation? 

Most religions support organ and tissue donation as it is consistent with life preservation. If you are unsure, you should talk to your spiritual leader.

How do I become a potential organ/tissue donor?

The process is straightforward. Register online (www.odf.org.za) or call the Organ Donor Foundation’s toll-free line on 0800 22 66 11. A plastic organ donor card will be sent for you to fill in and carry in your wallet. A sticker will also be sent; this needs to put on your ID document and on your driver’s license. 

It’s vital to discuss the decision with your family. Let them know that you want to donate your organs/tissue after death. Ask them to honour your wish when you die.

Samantha Nicholls is the Executive Director of the Organ Donor Foundation. She has worked at the organisation for over 18 years and possesses a wealth 
of knowledge on organ donation and transplantation in SA. Her responsibilities include the daily management of the organisation and oversees all national and regional projects.

MEET THE EXPERT – Samantha Nicholls

Samantha Nicholls is the Executive Director of the Organ Donor Foundation. She has worked at the organisation for over 18 years and possesses a wealth of knowledge on organ donation and transplantation in SA. Her responsibilities include the daily management of the organisation and oversees all national and regional projects.


Header image by Freepik

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