Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.1 Those with cancer have almost twice the incidence of suicide, but patients with head and neck cancer were three times as likely to end their lives, according to a recent study.

Because large studies of suicide rates among patients with head and neck cancers had not been performed, Richard Chan Woo Park, MD, of the Department of Otolaryngology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, NJ, and colleagues looked at the suicide rate in this patient population with the goal to identify risk factors.

“By highlighting the increased risk of suicide in this population, especially site-specific risks, we hoped to alert clinicians to the need to look for signs of depression and suicidal ideation, and hopefully help patients get the psychiatric help that may save their lives,” Soly Baredes, MD, FACS, professor and chair of the Department of Otolaryngology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and coauthor of the paper wrote in an email to Cancer Therapy Advisor.

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Investigators conducted a retrospective cohort study using data from 350 413 patients with head and neck cancer recorded in the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) program from 1973 to 2011.

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They identified 857 suicides and calculated a 37.9 per 100 000 person-years suicide rate after adjusting for age, sex, and race. Using a suicide rate in the general United States population of 11.8 per 100 000 person-years, the standardized mortality ratio (SMR) was calculated to be 3.21 (95% CI: 2.18 – 4.23).

Although the rate of suicide trended down during the study period, the rate of suicide was higher in males and those with late stage disease. Higher suicide rates, though not statistically significant, were also found for white and unmarried patients.