People sometimes ask if an organ transplant will cure cancer. They want to donate a kidney or lung to try and cure the cancer of someone close to them.
Unfortunately it is not possible to use lung or kidney transplants to treat cancer. The information here explains why. It also tells you which other types of transplants are used to treat cancer.
What organ transplants are
An organ transplant is an operation that takes a solid organ (such as a kidney or heart) from one person and gives it to another. Most donated organs are from people who have died, often in accidents.
But a general shortage of organ donors has led to an increase in living donors, particularly for kidney transplants. Living donor transplants are when people who are alive and well donate their organs, usually to a family member.
Transplants are very big operations. They can have complications, most commonly if the body rejects the new organ. So the person receiving the transplant needs to take drugs to help stop organ rejection.
Kidney transplants are the most common type of transplant. Doctors also carry out heart, liver and lung transplants regularly.
But almost none of these transplants are done for cancer. The rare exception is liver transplant.
Why organ transplants are rarely used to treat cancer
One reason is in case the cancer has spread. With any cancer, it's possible that cancer cells have broken away from the tumour and travelled to other parts of the body.
Even if doctors remove the organ containing the primary cancer, the cells that have spread would continue to grow.
Added to that, transplant patients have to take drugs to damp down their immune system so they don’t reject the new transplanted organ. If they have cancer, their immune system might be helping to fight it. So suppressing their immune system is not a good idea.
Liver transplant is one type of transplant that can be used to treat cancer.
It has recently become an accepted treatment for primary liver cancer. Primary liver cancer means cancer that started in the liver – not cancer that has spread to the liver from somewhere else in the body.
Transplant is only possible for a very few people. It can only be used if the primary liver cancer has not spread to any other part of the body. It is most important that the cancer has not spread. The surgery would not cure the cancer if it had.
Living donor transplant
Living donor transplant is a new technique. A living donor has part of their liver removed for donation. The donor’s liver is able to grow back afterwards.
But remember that transplants are only suitable for a small group of people with primary liver cancer. You can find detailed information in our section on liver transplant.
More information about lung and kidney cancer
With any cancer it’s important to understand the difference between primary and secondary cancer.
- The primary cancer is where the cancer started
- A secondary cancer is a cancer that has spread
This is important because doctors choose treatment according to the type of primary cancer.
You can read more in our sections on treating kidney cancer and lung cancer.
Donating your organs
Unfortunately, it’s rarely possible to donate one of your organs to help someone in your family with cancer.
But you might still want to register as an organ donor. There’s a shortage of donors in the UK and the NHS needs more people to pledge their organs after death. Transplants can save lives.
You can find out about becoming a donor on the NHS blood and organ donor website. Or you can call the NHS organ donor line on 0300 123 23 23.