Another Risk After Cancer Diagnosis: Suicide

Two new studies look at the mental toll on patients
By Mike L. Ford,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 4, 2022 1:09 PM CDT
Another Risk After Cancer Diagnosis: Suicide
   (Getty - Chinnapong)

Researchers have long known that cancer patients face higher risk of depression and other psychiatric disorders, as well as suicide. That may be unsurprising, given the terminal nature of some cancer diagnoses. However, two sweeping new studies go far deeper into the data than previous efforts, identifying patterns among patients worldwide and uncovering specific risk factors. Above all, writes Jessica Wapner in the New York Times, "the findings make a compelling case for oncologists to have more discussions with their patients about mental health struggles,” and to make access to mental health care a standard in cancer therapy.

One study examined 28 previous studies involving some 22 million patients. Findings show that cancer patients are 85% more likely to commit suicide, compared to the general population. The worse the diagnosis, the higher the suicide rate. Also, Americans are most likely to commit suicide, which—in notes accompanying publication in Nature Medicinethe researchers say might be because of factors including high health-care costs and easy access to firearms (which are known to increase suicide risk and completion rates). Per MedPage Today, “researchers also noted that African Americans had a slightly lower suicide mortality rate than other ethnic groups," possibly due to “misclassification of suicides [by officials], strong religious beliefs, family bonds, and communalism.”

The other study had a smaller scale but broader focus, examining the psychiatric outcomes of 460,000 British patients. Among its notable findings: The "single biggest risk factor" in patients who developed a mental health issue was that their treatment involved the arduous trifecta of surgery, radiation, and chemo, per the Times. Also, patients with testicular cancer were almost universally prone to depression. One doctor interviewed by the Times said, “That’s slightly counterintuitive—it’s one of the better prognosis forms of cancer.” But it demonstrates on how any cancer diagnosis can take a mental toll, he adds. (Read more cancer stories.)

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