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Cancer diagnosis linked to sudden deaths

10th April 2012

Researchers have warned of a greater risk of suicide and death from heart attack among people newly diagnosed with cancer.


Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers in Sweden and Iceland found in a recent study that people are most at risk in the period immediately following their diagnosis.

The great distress involved in being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, as well as the prospect of living with it, can induce further health problems in patients, according to the research team from Karolinska Institutet, Orebro University and the University of Iceland.

For the purposes of the study, the team followed a group of more than six million Swedish nationals enrolled in national population and health registries. The study group included more than half a million people who received a cancer diagnosis during the the study period.

Previous studies have linked the increased risk of additional health problems, including suicide, to the physical stress of treatment and the emotional strain of living with the disease.

Now, the Karolinska-led team believes that the stress of receiving a diagnosis alone may be enough to precipitate a heart attack or a suicide attempt.

While only a very small proportion of patients committed suicide soon after they received their diagnosis, the risk of suicide was found to be 12 times that of patients without cancer in the first week after diagnosis.

The risk of death from cardiovascular disease was six times higher in the first week after diagnosis, compared with people who without cancer.

People who were diagnosed with malignancies in areas of the body with a poor prognosis like the lung or pancreas were at greater risk than those with other cancers. Skin cancer appeared to carry the least risk.

However, the risk of suicide or cardiovascular death both declined significantly during the course of the first year after diagnosis.

The researchers concluded that the diagnosis itself was the main stress factor for patients, as opposed to the strain of living with the disease or undergoing treatment.

Previous medical history appeared to have little to do with the elevated risk levels, either, as patients with no previous psychiatric or cardiovascular problems were among those who attempted suicide or suffering heart attacks soon after a cancer diagnosis.

According to lead researcher Fang Fang, who works in Karolinska Institutet's Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, both cardiovascular death and suicide appear as manifestations of the extreme emotional stress induced by the diagnosis of cancer.

He said the mental distress associated with receiving such a diagnosis could bring about critical and immediate risks to a person's health and life.

Moreover, Fang's team suspect that the health risks they found in their study may just be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ascertaining the level of mental suffering in newly diagnosed cancer patients.

The findings should help relatives and healthcare professionals to understand the serious consequences of a cancer diagnosis for the patient.

Fang said he hoped the study will pave the way for improvements in the care plans of newly diagnosed cancer patients and lower their risk of an early death from mental distress.

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