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Depression (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Suicide Risk in Cancer Patients

Demographics and Statistics

Studies indicate that the incidence of suicide in cancer patients can be equal to the incidence in the general population or up to 2 to 10 times as frequent. Some studies suggest that while relatively few cancer patients commit suicide, they are at increased risk for suicide.[1,2,3] One population-based study utilizing data from the Cancer Registry of Norway linked to the Register of Deaths at Statistics Norway indicated an increased relative risk of suicide in the decade 1990-1999 within 2 years of diagnosis for males and females; however, the relative risk for females was nonsignificant. For both sexes, the risk was highest in the first months after diagnosis, and there was a significant decrease in relative risk over decades.[4] Passive suicidal thoughts are relatively common among cancer patients. The relationships between suicidal tendency and the desire for hastened death, requests for physician-assisted suicide, and/or euthanasia are complex and poorly understood.[5] Men with cancer are clearly at an increased risk of suicide compared with the general population, with a relative risk as high as 2.3.[1,2] Overdosing with analgesics and sedatives is the most common method of suicide among persons with cancer,[1,2] with most cancer-related suicides occurring at home. Reports identify a higher incidence of suicide in patients with oral, pharyngeal, and lung cancers and in HIV-positive patients with Kaposi sarcoma.[1,2,5] The actual incidence of suicide in cancer patients is probably underestimated. There may be reluctance to report death by suicide in these circumstances.[6]

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Risk factors for suicide in the cancer population are as follows:

General Risk Factors

  • History of psychiatric disorders, especially those associated with impulsive behavior (e.g., borderline personality disorders).
  • Family history of suicide.
  • History of previous/prior suicide attempts.
  • Depression.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Recent death of a friend or spouse.
  • Few social supports.

Cancer-Specific Risk Factors

  • Oral, pharyngeal, and lung cancers (often associated with heavy alcohol and tobacco use).
  • Advanced stage of disease and poor prognosis.
  • Confusion/delirium.
  • Inadequately controlled pain.
  • Presence of deficit symptoms (e.g., loss of mobility, loss of bowel and bladder control, amputation, sensory loss, paraplegia, inability to eat and to swallow, exhaustion, fatigue).


  1. Bolund C: Suicide and cancer: I. Demographic and social characteristics of cancer patients who committed suicide in Sweden, 1973-1976. Journal of Psychosocial Oncology 3 (1): 17-30, 1985.
  2. Bolund C: Suicide and cancer: II. Medical and care factors in suicides by cancer patients in Sweden, 1973-1976. Journal of Psychosocial Oncology 3 (1): 31-52, 1985.
  3. Fox BH, Stanek EJ 3rd, Boyd SC, et al.: Suicide rates among cancer patients in Connecticut. J Chronic Dis 35 (2): 89-100, 1982.
  4. Hem E, Loge JH, Haldorsen T, et al.: Suicide risk in cancer patients from 1960 to 1999. J Clin Oncol 22 (20): 4209-16, 2004.
  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. Holland JC: Psychologic aspects of cancer. In: Holland JF, Frie E, eds.: Cancer Medicine. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lea & Febiger, 1978, pp 1175-1203.

    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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