Apr 5, 2012 4:59 PM
Research published this week in The New England Journal of Medicine finds that the risk is present even before treatment begins, and the risk was greatest among people with the most deadly cancers.
The findings confirm that a cancer diagnosis may have an immediate affect on physical and emotional health that can lead to death, say researcher Unnur Valdimarsdottir, PhD, of the University of Iceland in Reykjavik.
"Just as war and natural disasters have been linked to deadly cardiovascular events and suicide, a diagnosis of cancer is a major life stressor," Valdimarsdottir tells WebMD.
The study included data from 1991 to 2006 about 6 million adult residents of Sweden age 30 or older who were enrolled in a nationwide health registry.
During this time, about 534,000 people in the registry received a first diagnosis of cancer. Slightly more than 26,300 people were diagnosed with cancers considered to be highly fatal, including those of the esophagus, pancreas, and liver.
Compared to people without a diagnosis of cancer:
Within a year of diagnosis, the suicide, heart attack, stroke, and blood clot-related death risk had returned to normal levels for people with all types of cancer.
Psychiatrist Bryan Bruno, MD, of Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, says the findings highlight the need to address emotional and noncancer-related health issues in the weeks following a diagnosis of cancer.
"This is especially true for patients with a history of psychiatric illness or established heart disease," he tells WebMD. "Often the oncology team is focused on the cancer alone and the psychological needs of the patient may not be addressed."
He says it is not uncommon for patients with a new diagnosis of cancer to stop taking the drugs that reduce their risk for heart disease and other chronic conditions.
American Cancer Society Deputy Chief Medical Officer Len Lichtenfeld, MD, agrees that the study shows the importance of remaining vigilant for signs of depression and deteriorating health in newly diagnosed cancer patients, even though it is not clear if the findings from the Swedish study directly apply to patients in the U.S.
"There is a tendency to dismiss depression in newly diagnosed patients, but just like the cancer itself, it can be very serious and must be addressed," he says.