Survivors of Head and Neck Squamous Cell Carcinoma Have Increased Risk of Suicide

The following story includes discussion of suicide.

According to a story from EurekAlert!, a recent study has revealed that survivors of head and neck cancer are four times more likely to take their own lives than the general population and are twice as likely to do so as survivors of other cancers. While more and more people are able to survive their cancer diagnosis, the trauma and outcomes from treatment can sometimes have hidden consequences.

About Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the Head and Neck

The vast majority of cases of head and neck cancer are a type called squamous cell carcinoma. This type can appear on the skin and within the lining of many hollow organs, such as those of the digestive and respiratory systems. The throat, nasal cavity, and mouth are also possible locations. There are a number of risk factors for squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck, such as tobacco, alcohol, betel nuts, gastroesophageal reflux, stem cell transplant, HPV, Epstein-Barr virus, and a diet heavy in red meat, processed meat, and eggs. Symptoms include breathing difficulties, facial swelling, a sore throat that doesn’t heal, a lump or sore that doesn’t heal, bleeding, vocal changes, and difficulty swallowing. Treatments include targeted therapies, chemotherapy, surgery, radiation therapy, and photodynamic therapy. To learn more about squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck, click here.

Why Are Survivors Taking Their Own Lives?

These findings were revealed by Dr. Nosayaba Osazuwa-Peters, an assistant professor at St. Louis University. The doctor suggests that part of the reason that suicide rates are elevated in survivors of this cancer are related to treatment. The head and neck contain a lot of valuable organs and effectively treating squamous cell carcinoma when it appears there can be challenging as a result. Unfortunately, when the goal is to keep the patient from dying, considerations like preservation of aesthetics are often tossed by the wayside.

Survived and Changed Forever

Many survivors of head and neck cancer may have some degree of disability to the point that they are unable to return to the workforce. Some survivors may also become disfigured, deal with chronic pain, or lose their ability to speak, challenges that can drastically increase the incidence of mental illnesses like depression. Dr. Osazuwa-Peters recommends long term mental health monitoring of patients in an attempt to reduce the suicide rate. 

Other factors that increased suicide risk were being male, white, unmarried, and having unstaged disease.

Find the original study here.

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