Cancer survival in parents who lost a child: a nationwide study in Denmark

Br J Cancer. 2003 Jun 2;88(11):1698-701. doi: 10.1038/sj.bjc.6600948.


Psychological stress has been suggested to shorten cancer survival, but few studies have examined the effect of parental bereavement, and the results have been inconsistent. We identified all 21 062 parents who lost a child in Denmark from 1980 to 1996 and among them, 1630 parents with subsequent incident cancer formed the exposed cohort. We recruited 6237 incident cancer patients from a group of 293 745 randomly selected unexposed parents matched on family structure at the same time as the bereaved parents. All incident cancers in the two cohorts were followed to the end of 1997, or until they died. Cox proportional-hazards regression models were used to evaluate the hazard ratio (HR) of dying in exposed parents with cancer. The overall HR of dying from an incident cancer in exposed parents was 1.23 (95% confidence interval 1.03-1.47) compared to parents with cancer who did not lose a child. The HRs were nearly identical to those in the unexposed parents for site-specific cancers like lung cancer, breast cancer, and other groups of cancers like cancers in all digestive organs, smoking-related cancers, alcohol-related cancers, hormone-related cancers, virus/immune-related cancers, and lymphatic/haematopoietic cancers. Death of a child is not a strong prognostic factor for cancer survival among parents diagnosed with cancer after the bereavement. However, a small impairment in overall cancer survival cannot be ruled out.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Bereavement*
  • Child
  • Cohort Studies
  • Denmark / epidemiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / mortality*
  • Neoplasms / psychology
  • Parents / psychology*
  • Risk Factors
  • Stress, Psychological / mortality*
  • Survival Rate