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Cancer Health Center

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Depression (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Assessment, Evaluation, and Management of Suicidal Patients

Table 7. Suggested Questions for the Assessment of Suicidal Symptoms in People With Cancera continued...

Answers to the questions of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide belong to the realm of the law, ethics, medicine, and philosophy. Physicians and other health care professionals have essential clinical roles to play in addressing and untangling these issues when working with depressed, terminally ill patients.[1,8,9,10,11,12,13] Additionally, religious and cultural issues may strongly influence this decision-making process. A 1994 survey suggests that hospice physicians favor vigorous pain control and strongly approve of the right of patients to refuse life support even if life is secondarily shortened. However, these physicians strongly oppose euthanasia or assisted suicide, clearly making a sharp distinction between these two interventions.[7] Often patients who specifically request physician-assisted suicide can be prescribed measures that augment their comfort, relieve symptoms, and obviate considering drastic measures.[1] A recent study suggests that agreement with euthanasia is associated with male sex, lack of religious beliefs, and general beliefs about the suffering of cancer patients.[14] A 1995 study of persons with advanced cancer who expressed a consistent and strong desire for hastened deaths suggested that this desire is related to the presence of depression. Patients with the desire to die should be carefully assessed and treated for depression as necessary. Whether their desire to die would persist or decrease with improvement in mood disorder has not yet been studied.[15] It is important to maintain a shared decision-making process from the beginning of the professional relationship.[16] (Refer to the PDQ summary on Last Days of Life for more information.)


  1. Massie MJ, Gagnon P, Holland JC: Depression and suicide in patients with cancer. J Pain Symptom Manage 9 (5): 325-40, 1994.
  2. Kovacs M, Beck AT, Weissman A: Hopelessness: an indicator of suicidal risk. Suicide 5 (2): 98-103, 1975 Summer.
  3. Breitbart W, Passik SD: Psychiatric aspects of palliative care. In: Doyle D, Hanks GW, MacDonald N, eds.: Oxford Text Book of Palliative Medicine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, pp 609-26.
  4. Akechi T, Okamura H, Yamawaki S, et al.: Why do some cancer patients with depression desire an early death and others do not? Psychosomatics 42 (2): 141-5, 2001 Mar-Apr.
  5. Breitbart W, Krivo S: Suicide. In: Holland JC, Breitbart W, Jacobsen PB, et al., eds.: Psycho-oncology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp 541-7.
  6. Roth AJ, Holland JC: Psychiatric complications in cancer patients. In: Brain MC, Carbone PP, eds.: Current Therapy in Hematology-Oncology. 5th ed. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby-Year Book, Inc., 1995, pp 609-18.
  7. Miller RJ: Supporting a cancer patient's decision to limit therapy. Semin Oncol 21 (6): 787-91, 1994.
  8. Masdeu JC: Physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. JAMA 276 (3): 196-7, 1996.
  9. Siegler M: Is there a role for physician-assisted suicide in cancer? No. Important Adv Oncol : 281-91, 1996.
  10. Back AL, Wallace JI, Starks HE, et al.: Physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia in Washington State. Patient requests and physician responses. JAMA 275 (12): 919-25, 1996.
  11. Marzuk PM: Suicide and terminal illness. Death Stud 18 (5): 497-512, 1994.
  12. Suarez-Almazor ME, Belzile M, Bruera E: Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide: a comparative survey of physicians, terminally ill cancer patients, and the general population. J Clin Oncol 15 (2): 418-27, 1997.
  13. Howard OM, Fairclough DL, Daniels ER, et al.: Physician desire for euthanasia and assisted suicide: would physicians practice what they preach? J Clin Oncol 15 (2): 428-32, 1997.
  14. Suarez-Almazor ME, Newman C, Hanson J, et al.: Attitudes of terminally ill cancer patients about euthanasia and assisted suicide: predominance of psychosocial determinants and beliefs over symptom distress and subsequent survival. J Clin Oncol 20 (8): 2134-41, 2002.
  15. Chochinov HM, Wilson KG, Enns M, et al.: Desire for death in the terminally ill. Am J Psychiatry 152 (8): 1185-91, 1995.
  16. Chandler SW, Trissel LA, Weinstein SM: Combined administration of opioids with selected drugs to manage pain and other cancer symptoms: initial safety screening for compatibility. J Pain Symptom Manage 12 (3): 168-71, 1996.

This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http:// cancer .gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.

WebMD Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

Last Updated: May 28, 2015
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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