Cancer and Suicide Risk

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work

APRIL 07, 2017

A new study from Europe suggests that cancer patients have a 55% higher risk of suicide than the general population. This is much higher than earlier estimates, and I am somewhat skeptical. However, it does raise an important and sometimes uncomfortable topic.

In all the years that I have been doing this work, I have known only one person who clearly chose suicide. She drove her car into a cement bridge at high speed. Even then, there was some conversation about whether it had been an accident. I have known several people who died a little sooner than anticipated, and the question was whether they had overdosed or whether the cancer had progressed a bit faster.

Many people have talked with me about the possibility of suicide. For many of us, the wish to have some control, to have an escape from intolerable pain and hopelessness, is a balm. Knowing that there is a way out can be soothing--even though none of the people who have talked about this with me have acted on it. You maybe aware that physician assisted suicide is legal in a few states, and the collective experience has been that very few people do it.

For me, the real worry and danger of this issue, is the possibility of someone acting out of depression rather than out of a thoughtful consideration of an impossible situation. The risks include a history of or current depression, hopelessness, physical, psychological, and social impairments. People with diagnoses of lung or head and neck cancers, those with advanced disease, confusion/cognitive impairment, loss of mobility, loss of bowel or bladder control, intractable pain are more at risk. Some of these things can be ameliorated, and we owe it to ourselves and to our patients to do so. If you or someone you know is talking about ending his life, listen carefully and get some help. An urgent threat requires a trip to the ER. Less urgent thought demands conversation with loved ones and medical caregivers.

There is no shame in these feelings. There is a need for help.

Here is the start of the article from The Guardian and a link:

Cancer patients have 55% greater risk of suicide, study finds

Cancer patients have a 55% greater risk of suicide than people without the potentially deadly disease, according to preliminary research findings.
Previous research has found suicide rates to be higher than in the general population but a paper being presented at this week’s European Congress of Psychiatry in Florence, Italy is an
attempt to quantify the size of the increased risk.
Co-author Dr Raffaella Calati from the department of emergency psychiatry and post-acute care at Lapeyronie hospital, Montpellier, described the results, derived by pooling data from 15 studies, as “extremely preliminary” but nevertheless significant.
“The key message that remains is that in the majority of the studies there is an increased risk,” she said. “We are quite sure the risk would be higher, although I cannot say the exact number.”
The analysis, which also looked at suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts, included studies published between 1983 and 2015 from Australia, Canada, China, Norway, South Korea, Sweden, the UK and the US.
Patients with cancer were found to have a 55% higher suicide rate compared with people without the disease. But the analysis revealed no increased risk of suicide attempts ( 8,147,762 participants) or suicidal thoughts (42,700 participants) in patients with cancer.

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Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
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