Older teenagers and young adults diagnosed with cancer may be at increased risk of suicide, especially in the first year after their diagnosis, according to findings published today in the Annals of Oncology.
A population-based cohort study conducted by researchers from Sweden, Iceland, and the United States found an increase in suicide or attempted suicide among individuals aged 15 to 30 years after a cancer diagnosis compared with such behaviors in cancer-free individuals in the same age cohort.
The researchers examined Swedish census, medical, and other records to follow up almost 8 million Swedes aged 15 years or older during 1987-2009. Among the participants, 12669 were first diagnosed with cancer between the ages of 15 and 30 years. Among this cancer population, there was a 60% increase in suicide or attempted suicide: there were 22 suicides (compared with 14 expected in age-adjusted cancer-free individuals) and 136 suicide attempts (compared with the expected 80 attempts in age-adjusted cancer-free individuals).
In addition, the researchers found that the increase in risk was greatest (1.5-fold) within the first year of diagnosis in those with cancer compared with cancer-free individuals. This elevated risk was seen for the majority of main cancer types except for thyroid and testicular cancers and melanoma.
Lead author Donghao Lu speculated in a release that the increased risk of suicidal behavior the study found in these young people with cancer may be related to not having fully developed coping strategies for all kinds of stress. “Only a small proportion of patients committed suicide or attempted suicide immediately after being diagnosed with cancer,” said Lu, a PhD student at Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden. “But suicide behaviors can be seen as manifestations of the extreme emotional stress induced by the cancer diagnosis. We believe that the evident risk of suicidal behavior is likely to represent just the tip of the iceberg of mental suffering in these young cancer patients.”
Lu added his team’s findings should alert family members and medical professionals caring for young people diagnosed with cancer to provide emotional support and mental care along with standard clinical care.