A Swedish study has found that cancer diagnosis elevates risk of suicide or fatal heart attack in the days and weeks that follow.
"Previous studies have shown that cancer patients are at higher risk of suicide and cardiovascular disease, which up until now has mainly been ascribed to the emotional strain of living with the potentially fatal disease and the often physically demanding cancer treatment," the Karolinska Institute said in a statement.
"Newly published data on patients with prostate cancer suggest, however, that being given the diagnosis may, in itself, be associated with a marked increase in the stress-related disease and death," it said.
The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, followed more than six million Swedes from 2001 to 2006, including more than 500,000 who were diagnosed with cancer during that period.
"Only a small proportion of patients committed suicide immediately after being diagnosed with cancer. However, the suicide risk during the first week following the diagnosis was twelve times higher than in people without cancer," the Karolinska said.
"Similarly, the risk of cardiovascular death was six times higher during the first week and three times higher during the first month after a cancer diagnosis, compared to people without cancer," it said.
The risk was greatest in malignant cancers with a poor prognosis, such as lung and pancreatic cancers, and least pronounced in skin cancer, it added.
The fact that the risk decreased in magnitude over time "supports the conclusion that the risk increase may be traced to the diagnosis itself rather than the emotional or physical suffering related to progression of the cancer or its treatment," it said.
Doctor Fang Fang of the Karolinksa Institute, who led the study, said the researchers hoped their findings may lead to improvements in the care of newly diagnosed cancer patients.