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Hundreds of transplant donors had history of cancer, figures show

Published 13/08/2016

Aspiring midwife Alison Cooney, who died in 2010 aged just 28, only six weeks after her cancer diagnosis (Family handout/PA)
Aspiring midwife Alison Cooney, who died in 2010 aged just 28, only six weeks after her cancer diagnosis (Family handout/PA)

Hundreds of people across the UK have received an organ transplant from someone with a history of cancer, new figures show.

Data obtained by the Press Association show that, in the five years to March 31 , 272 organ donors across the UK had a history of cancer or malignancy.

These resulted in 675 people receiving an organ transplant.

There is a common misconception that people cannot be organ donors if they have had cancer, b ut there are some circumstances where it is possible.

Guidance from the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs states: "Risks of cancer transmission must be balanced against the risks of dying without transplantation."

The figures, from NHS Blood and Transplant, also show that, over the last five years, more than 1,033 people who had suffered from some types of cancer went on to donate their eyes - but not their other organs.

Eye donation is one of the areas that health officials are trying to highlight as some potential organ donors opt not to donate their corneas.

NHS Blood and Transplant needs around 70 cornea donations a week to meet the demand for sight-saving transplants.

But one in 10 people on the NHS Organ Donor Register do not want to donate their eyes.

One mother who decided to donate her daughter's eyes after she died from bowel and liver cancer is trying to highlight the importance of cornea donation.

Aspiring midwife Alison Cooney died in 2010 aged just 28, only six weeks after her diagnosis.

Her cornea donation helped to save the sight of two people.

Her mother, Ann Cooney, from Alkrington, Greater Manchester, said: "When Alison became ill, and we were told that her liver was compromised, I remember saying to her that she would be OK as she could have a liver transplant.

"At that moment I didn't think about where the liver would come from, and I really didn't care. As a mother, I just wanted anything to make my little girl well again.

"However, it was confirmed that Alison had secondary liver cancer, caused by primary bowel cancer, and it was terminal."

Miss Cooney was told she had around 20 months to live but her condition deteriorated quickly.

Mrs Cooney added: "A few months before she became ill, she had passed her driving test and received a donor card with her licence. I mentioned this to one of the nurses and she arranged for a donor nurse to come and speak with us.

"She told us that her major organs could not be donated, because of the aggressive nature of her illness, but her eyes could be used.

"It seemed very appropriate that she should mention eyes, because Alison had the most beautiful eyes, and was always being complimented about them. I remember saying to the nurse that I could think of nothing better than for someone else to see the world through Alison's eyes.

"Apparently not many people donate their eyes, although it is one of the most successful procedures. Even though initially it was very difficult to accept what was about to happen, it wasn't about us, and we had to focus on something good being achieved from something bad."

She added: "In a very short space of time, I had gone from desperately wanting an organ donation for my daughter, to actually making a donation to someone else on her behalf."

Professor John Forsythe, associate medical director for organ donation and transplantation at NHS Blood and Transplant, said: "All organ and tissue transplants are dependent on people being willing to donate and families being prepared to help transform other people's lives by donating a relative's organs or tissues.

"We are very keen that everyone, regardless of their health status, registers a decision to donate on the NHS Organ Donor Register at www.organdonation.nhs.uk and tells their family they want to donate. Please don't let the fact you have a health condition or have had an illness in the past stop you from registering as a donor.

"We work hard to minimise the risks to recipients by carefully evaluating all potential organ and tissue donors.

"Organs from deceased donors with some current and past cancers may be safely used, with surgeons balancing the risk of using an organ against the risk of a patient dying waiting for a transplant. In fact, over the last five years, 675 people across the UK have received an organ transplant from someone with a history of cancer or malignancy.

"What many people don't realise is that you could potentially donate your corneas and help save someone's sight even if certain cancers are a cause of your death.

"Please agree to cornea donation too when you register to donate your organs - you could end up saving someone's sight even if you can't donate your organs when you die."

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From Belfast Telegraph