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New cancer diagnosis heightens suicide, heart risks in first week

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
New diagnosis of cancer ups suicide and heart attack risk immediately.

Patients who are newly diagnosed with cancer are found in a study to be at high risk for suicide and fatal heart attack that is heightened in the first week after being told they have the disease. Researchers from the Karolinska Institutet say that even though suicides among patients told they have cancer are low, the finding highlights the need for interventions to protect patient’s mental and physical health.

Suicide risk twelve times higher immediately after cancer diagnosis

Even though the incidence of suicide was low in the study, the authors say the chances of it happening are 12 times higher immediately after cancer diagnosis. The risk declines over time.

Dr Fang Fang, a researcher at the Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Karolinska Institutet, who led the study said in a news release, "Both suicide and cardiovascular death can be seen as manifestations of the extreme emotional stress induced by the cancer diagnosis.” Just being told you have cancer can induce extreme emotional and physical stress.

Because the risk of suicide lessens with time, the finding suggests it’s the initial diagnosis of cancer and not the disease or treatment that makes patients immediately vulnerable to suicide and fatal heart attack. Past studies have blamed living with cancer and treatments for the disease.

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The new study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, looked at patient data taken from the Swedish national population and health registries that included more than 500 000 people diagnosed with cancer during the study period during 1991-2006.

In addition to twelve times the higher risk of suicide during the first week of being diagnosed with cancer, the study authors found a 6 fold chance of death from heart attack during the same period. At 3 weeks the risk of heart attack death was 3 times higher, compared to people with no cancer. During the first year following cancer diagnosis the chances of suicide and heart attack declined quickly.

The chances of suicide and death from heart attack was highest among people diagnosed with pancreatic, lung and more serious forms of the disease as opposed to skin cancer. The authors believe the study barely touches on the emotional impact and immediate health risks of receiving a new diagnosis of cancer. The finding is important for family members and clinicians who can provide needed support and interventions for patients during the immediate period after they're told they have cancer.

N Engl J Med 2012; 366:1310 - 1318
April 5, 2012
Fang F., Fall K., Mittleman M.A., et al.

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