Cancer patients at increased risk for suicide, cardiac deaths

Patients diagnosed with cancer have an increased risk of suicide and death from heart attack, stroke, or other cardiovascular (CVD) event within weeks of diagnosis, according to a new study by Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and a group of international researchers. The study appears in the April 5, 2012 New England Journal of Medicine.

In the review of data on more than six million Swedish men and women, researchers found that people recently diagnosed with cancer had a 12.6 times higher suicide risk and a 5.6 times higher risk of death from CVD compared to people without a recent cancer diagnosis. The risk was greatest the week following a cancer diagnosis and decreased over time, but a year after diagnosis remained three times higher compared to those without cancer. The risk of death was particularly prominent among patients with a poor prognosis, including those with brain tumors or esophagus, liver, pancreas, and lung cancers. Those with skin cancer had the lowest risk. Read the NEJM abstract.

“What we’re really looking at is the psychological stress associated with receiving the news,” co-author Murray Mittleman, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at HSPH and director, Cardiovascular Epidemiology Research Unit at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, told ABC News. The results have implications for health professionals who deliver diagnoses to patients, and for family members who support the patient. They also may affect cancer screening programs, which sometimes produce false positives that can lead to tests, procedures, and anxiety, Mittleman said.

Data from the 1990 Swedish Population and Housing Census and Sweden’s nationwide Cancer, Causes of Death, and Migration Registers was used in the study.

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is known to be traumatic. Cancer patients have been shown previously to be at increased risk for suicide and CVD events, such as heart attack, heart disease, embolism, or thrombosis. Some theorize cancer treatment or the psychological stress of dealing with a serious disease contribute to the link. This new study is one of only a few to explore the period immediately after a cancer diagnosis.

“Friends and family members need to realize how devastating it is to receive this kind of news and that they need to be there for the person,” Mittleman told MSNBC. “And the message to the medical team is to be thoughtful about how the news is delivered and to make sure that there is some sort of social support in place.”

Other HSPH researchers on the study, entitled “Suicide and Cardiovascular Death after a Cancer Diagnosis,” included Hans-Olov Adami, professor of epidemiology, Katja Fall, and Unnur Valdimarsdóttir.

View an ABC News interview with Murray Mittleman

Read an MSNBC report

Learn more

Department of Epidemiology