5 Things I Learned About Suicide Rates in Cancer Patients

Mohamed Rahouma, MD, is a post-doctoral cardiothoracic research fellow and surgeon at Weill Cornell Medical College/New York Presbyterian Hospital. He and colleague Dr. Jeffrey Port co-authored the study, “Among All Cancers, Lung Cancer Appears to Put Patients at Greatest Suicide Risk.”

In September 2016, we sought to investigate the role stressful events had after someone received a cancer diagnosis, and we choose suicide as the dismal outcome. We went through a large American database called SEER (Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results) that included detailed information about cancer patients for over four decades (1973-2013).

We learned the following from our work:

Patients with cancer are really at risk.

Among 3,640,229 patients in the database, we looked at suicide deaths for lung, prostate, breast and colorectal cancers individually, as those are the most common four cancer types in the U.S. Over the four decades, there were 6,661 suicides among cancer patients. 

We found any kind of cancer patient was 60 percent higher than the general U.S. population to die by suicide.

Which type of cancer put the patient at the highest risk?

When we divided the data by cancer types, dramatic differences existed in suicide rates. We discovered suicide rates were 40 percent higher than average among colorectal cancer patients, and 20 percent higher among those diagnosed with breast cancer or prostate cancer.

The highest risk was noted to be among lung cancer patients — 420 percent higher.

Why does lung cancer have a higher suicide rate?

It is well-known lung cancer is an aggressive disease with a poor overall and disease-free survival rate, unless it is discovered at an early stage to prompt a cure with proper treatment.

Which lung cancer patients are at a higher suicide risk?

Asians have a more than 13-fold risk of suicide, and men a nearly 9-fold increase in suicide. Other factors that increased suicide risk were being older, being widowed, refusing surgical treatment and having a difficult-to-treat (metastatic) type of lung cancer.

Good news and final advice.

We noted over the 40-year study period, suicide rates decreased, most notably for lung cancer when compared to the other three most common cancers. This may be attributed to better screening and discovery of cancer at an early stage — hence, higher cure rate and better hope.

Patients may feel anxiety, depression or hopelessness after hearing stories from their family members or friends who knew someone with the disease, so doctors need to reassure their patients every case is unique and there are good treatments for early-stage patients.

In our practice in the clinics, we see patients with their families and friends seem less stressed than those who come alone. Loneliness in itself is a big killer, so try to incorporate yourself among your loved ones and avoid isolation.

Your health and emotional well-being are the most important thing in the world, so try to share any suicidal thoughts with your physician.

Live today brilliantly because tomorrow is not promised.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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Thinkstock photo by cirano83

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