Receiving a cancer diagnosis is difficult to hear at any age, but new research suggests that teens and young adults who are diagnosed with the disease have an increased risk for suicide. Researchers say it could be related to their stress-coping strategies, which may not yet be fully developed.
Donghao Lu, a PhD student at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, led the study, which was recently published in the journal Annals of Oncology.
Lu and colleagues from Sweden, Iceland and the US used data from the Swedish census and other records to follow nearly 8 million Swedes over the age of 15 between 1987 and 2009.
Taking into account psychiatric history, the researchers also looked into the difference in sucicidal behavior in women diagnosed with cervical cancer.
During the follow-up period, which was an average of 17.4 years, the team found that there were 105,868 cases of suicidal behavior among the 8 million people.
However, among the 12,669 cancer patients in the group who were between the ages of 15 and 30, there was a 60% increased risk of suicide or attempted suicide, the researchers say.
They note that this risk was 150% higher in cancer patients during the first year after cancer diagnosis, compared with individuals in the cancer-free group.
Lu explains these numbers in more detail:
"We found that there were 22 suicides among the cancer patients versus 14 expected and 136 attempts at suicide versus 80 expected. This equates to an extra 64 instances of suicidal behavior among the 12,669 young cancer people."
He says that as far as they know, theirs is the first study to look at suicide risk in adolescents and young adults following a cancer diagnosis.
Suicide risk varies by cancer diagnosis
The researchers note that an increased suicide risk was observed after diagnoses for most cancers, but a diagnosis for cancer of the thyroid, testis and melanoma did not significantly increase the risk for suicidal behavior.
This may be due to the better prognosis for those types of cancers in the 15-30 age group, the researchers say.
Although many patients between the ages of 20-29 who are diagnosed with cervical cancer can expect to survive for more than 5 years, however, the results showed a three-fold increased risk of suicidal behavior, rising to a six-fold increase during the first year after diagnosis.
Though Lu says they do not know why this is, he offers that a "reason might be related to the effects of treatment, such as menopausal symptoms and lymphedema, which might contribute to emotional distress."
Coping with stress
Lu says their recent study may only "represent just the tip of the iceberg," when it comes to the mental suffering that young cancer patients experience. He adds:
"Our findings also have important implications for the relatives and other people involved in the health care of the young cancer patients. They emphasize the need for mental care to be included in the clinical care of these patients, particularly those with pre-existing psychiatric conditions, or with poor prognosis."
The researchers say that young people are still developing ways to cope with stress, so they may be more affected by adversity - including the diagnosis of cancer - than adults.
Although their findings were quite significant in Sweden, the researchers note that they cannot be applied to other countries. However, they do say it is likely similar results may be found.
Citing suicide as the second most common cause of death in young people around the world, the team is carrying out more research to find factors that might play a role in stress reactions to a cancer diagnosis, who is at high risk and what could be done to reduce this risk.
Medical News Today recently reported that suicide rates increased with the global economic crisis.