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People With Cancer Four Times More Likely to Die by Suicide

January 29, 2019

A cancer diagnosis more than quadruples the risk of suicide, suggests a study published online in Nature Communications.

Among people with cancer, white males, those diagnosed at younger ages, and patients with lung cancer, head and neck cancer, testicular cancer, or lymphomas had the highest suicide risk.

“Even though cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, most cancer patients do not die from cancer. The patients usually die of another cause,” said researcher Nicholas Zaorsky, MD, radiation oncologist at Penn State Cancer Institute, Hershey, Pennsylvania.

“There are multiple competing risks for death, and one of them is suicide. Distress and depression can arise from cancer diagnosis, treatment, financial stress, and other causes. Ultimately, distress and depression may lead to suicide,” Zaorsky said.

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Dr. Zaorsky and colleagues looked at data on more than 8.6 million patients diagnosed with invasive cancer between 1973 and 2014. Among the study population, 0.15% died by suicide.

According to the study, suicide risk tends to decrease 5 years after a cancer diagnosis. However, for patients with Hodgkin lymphoma and testicular cancer, the risk remains high.

“The interesting thing we found was that it does seem to matter at what age a patient is diagnosed and what type of cancer that person has,” said Dr. Zaorsky. “Treatments for some cancers—like leukemia and testicular cancer among adolescents and young adults, for example—can decrease a patient’s fertility, and that seems to be one of the risks for suicide in the long term. In contrast, elderly patients who are diagnosed with lung, prostate, and head and neck cancers, are at an increased risk of suicide for the remainder of their life.”

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By identifying those at increased suicide risk, clinicians can be better prepared to help patients, researchers said.

“This information could be helpful while developing guidelines and strategies for how and when to screen cancer patients for depression and distress,” Dr. Zaorsky said. “For example, aiming suicide-prevention strategies at older patients and those with certain cancers, such as prostate, lung, leukemias and lymphomas, may be beneficial.”

—Jolynn Tumolo


Zaorsky NG, Zhang Y, Tuanquin L, Bluethmann SM, Park HS, Chinchilli VM. Suicide among cancer patients. Nature Communications. 2019 January 14;[Epub ahead of print].

Bohn K. Suicide risk more than quadruples for people with cancer [press release]. Hershey, Pennsylvania: Penn State; January 14, 2019.

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