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Childhood Cancer Survivors Experience Suicidal Thoughts Decades After Diagnosis

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Adult survivors of childhood cancer have an increased risk for suicidal thoughts, even decades after their cancer treatments ended, according to a study led by Dana-Farber Cancer Institute scientists.

The researchers report in the Journal of Clinical Oncology that nearly eight percent of pediatric cancer survivors said they have experienced suicidal thoughts, or suicidal ideation. Survivors of brain and central nervous system cancers were most likely to have had suicidal thoughts, and those who were in poor health or who had cancer-related pain or treatment-related chronic conditions also were at greater risk. The paper is published on the journal's Web site and later will appear in a print edition.

The authors report that suicidal thoughts and behaviors are known to be associated with extreme emotional and physical suffering. Despite significant advances, cancer and cancer treatments can result in significant physical and emotional morbidity, and several epidemiologic studies indicate that the risk of suicide is elevated in cancer patients compared with people in the general population.

"Our findings underscore the importance of recognizing the connection between childhood cancer survivors' physical health issues and their risk for suicidal thoughts, as some of the conditions may be treatable," said Christopher Recklitis, PhD, MPH, the study's lead author, a psychologist and director of research in the Perini Family Survivors' Center at Dana-Farber.

Childhood cancer survivors, due to the intensive treatments they received, are at risk for developing chronic medical problems later in life. The researchers found that health problems in adulthood were very strongly associated with the survivors' suicidal thoughts. For example, 28.8 percent of survivors reporting "poor" overall health had suicide ideation, compared with only 3.3 percent of survivors who said their health were "excellent." Being physically disabled was associated with suicide ideation, as were the number and severity of chronic medical conditions, and cancer-related pain.

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Thanks for you comments Pat.

November 5, 2009 - 8:04am
HERWriter Guide

Hi Lynette - This study really illustrates the need to support cancer survivors in a wholistic manner throughout their lives, no matter what age they are at diagnosis. I was struck by those most at risk for suicidal thoughts seem to be those in an age range at which most children lose health insurance support through their parents and may therefore lose many aspects of their support system. This study will certainly make me much more aware of the need to address gaps that may occur and put young people at higher risk. Thanks so much for this information.
Best regards,

November 3, 2009 - 5:48pm
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