Teenagers and young adults are at increased risk of suicide after being diagnosed with cancer according to a new study.

“As far as we are aware, this is the first study to look at suicidal behavior following a cancer diagnosis in adolescents and young adults. Given that young people are still developing their coping strategies for stress, they may be more affected than adults when facing major adversity such as a cancer diagnosis. Although the absolute risk of suicidal behavior is modest among the cancer patients, it emphasizes the need to support and carefully monitor these vulnerable young people,” said first author Donghao Lu, a PhD student in the Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden. This study was published in Annals of Oncology (2013; doi:10.1093/annonc/mdt415).

The study of nearly 8 million Swedes aged 15 years and older found that the 12,669 young people diagnosed with cancer between the ages of 15 and 30 had a 60% increased risk of suicide or attempted suicide. The risk was highest during the first year immediately after diagnosis when suicidal behavior was 1.5-fold (150%) higher among the cancer patients compared with the cancer-free group.

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“We found that there were 22 suicides among the cancer patients versus 14 expected and 136 attempts at suicide versus 80 expected. This equates to an extra 64 instances of suicidal behavior among the 12,669 young cancer people,” said Lu.

An increased risk of suicidal behavior was seen after diagnoses for most cancers, except for cancer of the thyroid and testis and melanoma (skin cancer), which may reflect the better prognosis for these cancers in this age group.

Lu further explained that these findings emphasize the need for mental care to be included in the health care of young cancer patients. This is particularly important for patients with preexisting psychiatric conditions or with poor prognosis.