Organ Transplant Recipients at Greater Risk for a Variety of Cancers


The most common cancer among the data analyzed was non-Hodgkin's lymphoma-- a weakened immune system is a known risk factor for the cancer. Engels said many cancers were also detected in the original damaged organ, so often, those who received a lung transplant were then diagnosed with lung cancer, kidney transplant with kidney cancer, which could, again, result from the organ's weakened state.

And for reasons that Engels said were not quite clear, patients were also at greater risk of developing skin cancer.

Doctors have reconstructed Schneider's nose twice because of skin cancer removed from the area.

It is important to maintain recommended follow-ups to detect and treat post-transplant cancers early in their course, preferably before patients become symptomatic, said Dr. Fredric Gordon, medical director of liver transplantation at Lahey Clinic Medical Center in Burlington, Mass.

"To that end, patients should have annual dermatologic exams and Pap smears (if appropriate), and PSAs, colonoscopy, digital rectal examination, etc., as recommended," Gordon said. "Appropriate skin care and sun protection is essential. Avoidance of known carcinogens such as cigarette smoke is also essential."

Of course, despite the potential cancer diagnosis, experts warn that the study results should not deter patients from receiving transplants.

"Yes, the risk of cancer is higher, but the alternative to transplant is usually death," said Dr. Jeffrey Punch, chief of the section of transplantation in the department of surgery at University of Michigan. "In the case of kidney transplantation where the alternative is dialysis, it still doesn't make sense to dwell on the cancer risk because the most common cause of death in patients with kidney disease is ... heart attacks and strokes."

The risk of these diseases is many times higher in dialysis patients compared to transplant patients, which is why life expectancy is roughly double in kidney transplant patients compared to patients waiting on dialysis despite the risk of more cancer, Punch said.

As for Schneider, she said she leads as healthy a life as possible — she eats well, walks a mile and a half to and from work every day, and drinks copious amounts of water. But really, Schneider said she doesn't worry about the cancer prognosis as much as she worries about kidney failure. And even then, all she can do is take the diagnoses and medical prodding as it comes.

"I never really considered the 'why me?'" said Schneider. "Why not me? I guess I adjusted at an early age to the fact that something is going to get you. I've never seen myself as a victim. I see myself as a survivor."

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