People diagnosed with cancer are significantly more likely to take their own lives or suffer a heart attack in the days and weeks immediately after getting the news, Swedish researchers have found.
In a new study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, investigators from the Karolinska Institutet examined the suicide and cardiovascular death rates of more than 500,000 Swedes diagnosed with cancer from 1991 to 2006.
They found only a small proportion of patients took their own lives immediately after being diagnosed with cancer, but the suicide risk during the first week after being told was twelve times higher than in people without cancer. They also found the risk of cardiovascular death was six times higher during the first week and three times higher during the first month, after a cancer diagnosis, compared to people without cancer.
The risk was greatest in cases with a poor prognosis, such as lung and pancreatic cancers, and least in skin cancer. Researchers found the risk of both suicide and cardiovascular death decreased rapidly thereafter during the first year after diagnosis.
Being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness inevitably causes great distress, the study authors noted. But the new findings suggest the diagnosis may, in itself, be the key factor that raises the risk of stress-related disease and death and spotlights a need for family members and healthcare providers to provide support.
"Both suicide and cardiovascular death can be seen as manifestations of the extreme emotional stress induced by the cancer diagnosis,” said lead researcher Fang Fang. “The results of this study indicate that the mental distress associated with being given a cancer diagnosis may bring about immediate and critical risks to mental and physical health."