A literature review of suicide in cancer patients

Cancer Nurs. 2012 Jul-Aug;35(4):E14-26. doi: 10.1097/NCC.0b013e31822fc76c.


Background: Cancer survivors have a higher suicide rate than the general population. Oncology nurses need to have knowledge and skills in assessing risk for suicide in this population.

Objective: This study aimed to conduct a literature review on risk factors for and incidence of suicide in patients with cancer and to identify potential screening tools.

Methods: PubMed, CINAHL, and PsycINFO databases were searched to identify research articles in peer-reviewed journals from 1999 to 2009. The variables under study included suicide rate, cancer type, demographic characteristics, and signs and symptoms associated with suicide. In addition, articles focused on suicide risk assessment tools were also included.

Results: Twenty-four articles met the inclusion criteria. As in the general population, suicide risk was higher among men with cancer as compared with women with cancer. Patients aged 65 years or older with cancer have a higher rate of suicide compared with those younger than 65 years, with rates highest among men 80 years or older. Specific diagnoses associated with higher suicide rates include prostate, lung, pancreatic, and head and neck cancers. The first year after diagnosis carries a higher risk for completed suicide. Multiple risk assessment tools have been developed and are effective in identifying patients with depression or hopelessness, factors associated with higher risk for suicide. However, no tools exist that sensitively and specifically predict suicide.

Conclusion: The incidence of suicide in someone with a cancer diagnosis is approximately double the incidence of suicide in the general population. Early detection of depression in special cancer populations, such as older male patients, may help identify those at greatest suicide risk.

Implications for practice: Oncology nurses should be aware of cancer patients considered at higher risk for suicide. Systematic screening for suicidal ideation and behavior may identify cancer patients at high risk and facilitate appropriate mental health evaluation and treatment.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Evidence-Based Nursing
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / nursing
  • Neoplasms / psychology*
  • Nursing Assessment*
  • Risk Assessment / methods
  • Risk Factors
  • Suicide / statistics & numerical data*
  • Survivors / psychology*