There’s a higher suicide risk in cancer patients, especially lung cancer. Here’s why

Click to play video: 'Anxiety and depression directly impact how long a cancer patient will survive'
Anxiety and depression directly impact how long a cancer patient will survive
WATCH: Researchers at UBC followed 684 lung cancer patients undergoing treatment in Vancouver and Surrey. They determined those who took their diagnosis particularly hard were more likely to die sooner – Jan 24, 2017

Battling cancer is hands down one of the most challenging experiences a person can face. Now new research is shedding light on how fighting the deadly disease takes its toll on mental well-being.

Scientists out of the Weill Cornell Medical College are warning that cancer patients face a higher risk of suicide, but it’s people battling lung cancer who face the most elevated risk.

Their risk was almost four times higher than the general population.

“We wanted to see what the impact of one of life’s most stressful events is on patients. I think it’s fair to say that most clinicians don’t think about suicide risk in cancer patients,” Dr. Mohamed Rahouma, the study’s lead author, said in a statement.

“This study, I hope, will change that by making us more aware of those at greatest risk of suicide so that this catastrophe in the care of our patients doesn’t happen,” Rahouma said.

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The study is based on data that spanned 40 decades – Rahouma combed a database with more than 3.6 million patients to look at how many suicides were reported in cancer patients.

Turns out, cancer diagnoses were tied to 6,661 suicides.

Compared to the general population, suicide risk was higher in any kind of cancer patient by 60 per cent.

But lung cancer patients faced the highest risk at a 420 per cent elevated risk, followed by colorectal cancer (40 per cent higher), breast cancer (20 per cent higher) and prostate cancer (20 per cent higher).

Skin cancers weren’t included in the study.

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Dr. Barry Bultz, who has over 35 years specializing in psychosocial oncology, said that the findings don’t reflect what’s going on in Canada, though.

“We know that prevalence of distress is in the 35 to 45 per cent range of all cancer patients. Suicide is extremely rare, though,” he told Global News.

“Cancer is a very frightening illness, and it’s highly stressful but once treatments start, patients have a lot of hope and there is support for patients dealing with psychosocial issues,” he said.

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Bultz is the founder and past president of CAPO, the Canadian Association of Psychosocial Oncology. The organization’s goal is to help doctors, researchers, and families understand, treat and study all of the aspects tied to a cancer diagnosis.

Families could hear from family or friends about others who have died from cancer. The stories can be demoralizing, the experts say. Patients grapple with depression, anxiety and feelings of hopelessness.

Patients could be taking time off work leaving finances in a freefall, they could be raising families or looking after their parents, their social life could take a hit – cancer touches every aspect of their lives.

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Lung cancer specialists aren’t necessarily well-versed in understanding the mental health side of patient care too, according to Dr. Jeffrey Port, one of the study authors.

“It’s pretty eye-opening that we should have to learn to ask patients, ‘Are you sleeping, are you eating, how are you feeling about your diagnosis?’ Doctors need to include these questions as part of the exam,” he told CBS News.

Other factors that increased suicide risk in the study included being older, being widowed, refusing surgical treatment and having a different-to-treat type of lung cancer.

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When it came to lung cancer patients specifically, Asians saw a 13-fold increased risk of suicide and men, on the whole, had a nine-fold increase in suicides.

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There was a silver lining, though: suicide rates decreased over the decades-long study period, especially for lung cancer.

With his findings in tow, Rahouma is hopeful his research will help frontline health-care workers consider the psychological aspects that come along with a cancer diagnosis instead of focusing solely on the medicinal therapies at hand.

“While cancer diagnosis counselling is an established practice, especially if a patient seems depressed, referral for ongoing psychological support and counselling typically does not happen. This represents a lost opportunity to help patients with a devastating diagnosis,” he said.

The team’s full findings were presented this week at the American Thoracic Society’s 2017 International Conference.

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