Depression, Suicide Risk, and Cancer: Studies Suggest We Have to Talk About It
Content Disclaimer: If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call or text 988, or visit 988lifeline.org/chat to chat with a counselor from the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, previously known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline provides 24/7, free, and confidential support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress anywhere in the U.S.
Suicide, like cancer, used to be whispered about. We now know how important it is to talk about it. ... Talking about cancer, suicide, and depression reduces shame and isolation and allows people to access support and help.
Cancer is undoubtedly stressful and, for many, it can lead to depression and even thoughts of suicide. In CSC’s own research, 38% of cancer patients and survivors who responded to our Cancer Experience Registry were at risk for depression. Further, over 50% indicated that they were worried about the future and what lies ahead. Many reported that while they were feeling consistently sad, depressed, or anxious, they did not tell their healthcare team. Among our Registry respondents, 1 out of 3 reported that they held back from telling their healthcare team about their side effects and symptoms.
The reality is that depression and suicide among people with a cancer diagnosis is far too frequent. Two recent studies published in Nature Medicine reported that people diagnosed with cancer are at an increased risk for suicide and self-harm (Chang; Heinrich). A third study, published in the JAMA Network Open in January, found that suicide risk among people with cancer was higher for those facing cancers with poor prognoses or potential long-term quality of life impairments (Hu, Ma, Jemal, et al).
This September, we reflect on the importance of highlighting National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Suicide, like cancer, used to be whispered about. We now know how important it is to talk about it. Leaving it in the shadows of silence leads to unnecessary isolation and suffering. Talking about cancer, suicide, and depression reduces the shame and allows us to access support and help.
This is particularly personal to me. Fourteen years ago, my dad, a cancer survivor, died by suicide. We were all so happy that dad was cancer free. We didn’t realize that he was struggling with cancer transitions. Dad was very good at putting everyone first and not focusing on his own needs. He faced cancer courageously, not wanting any help, because he was always the “strong” one. My dad was the ultimate caregiver of our family, neighbors, and friends.
When thinking about my dad, I truly believe that he could not tolerate needing to be cared for rather than caring for others. Seeking support is not a sign of weakness. It is an act of courage and strength. This is true when facing cancer or any other struggles in life.
So, let’s talk about it.
What You Need to Know About Suicide and Cancer
Cancer can bring with it a mix of emotional, physical, spiritual, and financial concerns that can be distressing. Approximately 25% of people diagnosed with cancer experience depression; the first year after diagnosis poses the greatest risk. Between 10-20% of people with cancer continue to report depression and anxiety as an ongoing issue.
Knowing the reality that depression, anxiety, and cancer is common should encourage you to talk about your own experience and feelings with your family and healthcare team. It is crucial that you talk about it because depression and anxiety are treatable. Suicidal ideation — thinking about, considering, or planning for suicide (NIMH) — occurs in about 6% of people with cancer, and generally in the first year after a diagnosis.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, it is critical that you talk to someone you trust. While a cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming, you don’t need to suffer, physically or emotionally, alone. There are professionals available to help you navigate the emotions of cancer, and depression can be treated.
"Seeking support is not a sign of weakness. It is an act of courage and strength. This is true when facing cancer or any other struggles in life."
Debbie Weir, CEO, Cancer Support Community
Treatment and Help Is Available
Having support at all points in the cancer experience, including survivorship, is so vital. More people are surviving cancer than ever before. It’s critical that support, connection, and compassion are available to cancer survivors as they navigate the challenges that can come after treatment ends.
I am so grateful for the mission of Cancer Support Community and our CSC and Gilda’s Club centers across the country. CSC uplifts and strengthens people impacted by cancer by providing support, fostering compassionate communities, and breaking down barriers to care. We provide professionally led direct service, support, and education to anyone impacted by cancer, at any point in their cancer experience, all at no cost.
We know that people thrive when they are connected to others, and we want to help you thrive. Here are a few ways you can reach out for support and connection:
- Contact our Cancer Support Helpline toll-free at 888-793-9355 or online via our live chat service. Our experienced Helpline staff are here to offer free navigation for cancer patients or their loved ones.
- Join our caring and supportive community — find a location near you. We have 190 locations worldwide, with programs that include support groups, yoga classes, and educational workshops.
- Connect to your online community through MyLifeLine, our digital community for people impacted by cancer. Create a personal support network and join our discussion forum for cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers.
- Find more information about coping with mental health concerns, including tips, resources, and a worksheet to help guide conversations with your healthcare team about mental health and cancer.
If you or someone you care about is impacted by cancer, please know that CSC is ready to assist. No one should face cancer isolated from others. Community is stronger than cancer. Connecting with others can truly make a difference.
National Crisis Resources
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, experiencing depression, or feeling a loss of hope, call or text the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988, or chat with a counselor from the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. They provide 24/7, free, and confidential support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress anywhere in the United States.
Other crisis and mental health resources include:
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – A voluntary health organization that gives those affected by suicide a nationwide community empowered by research, education, and advocacy to take action against this leading cause of death.
- The Trevor Line – A crisis hotline available 24/7/365 for LGBTQ youth. Call 866-488-7386. Text services are also available.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) – A grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for Americans affected by mental illness.
- SAMHSA National Helpline – A free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and families facing mental or substance use disorders. Call 800-662-4357.
- Inclusive Therapists – A mental health community committed to centering the needs of marginalized, underserved populations.
Editor's Note: This blog was originally published in September 2022 and has been updated. Visit our Spotlight on Mental Health series to read more blogs examining critical mental health concerns that affect cancer patients, survivors, caregivers, and providers.
Chang, W.H., Lai, A.G. Cumulative burden of psychiatric disorders and self-harm across 26 adult cancers. Nat Med 28, 860–870 (2022).
Heinrich, M., Hofmann, L., Baurecht, H. et al. Suicide risk and mortality among patients with cancer. Nat Med 28, 852–859 (2022).
Hu, X., Ma, J., Jemal, A., et al. Suicide risk among individuals diagnosed with cancer in the US, 2000-2016. JAMA Netw Open. 2023;6(1):e2251863. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.51863.