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Depression (PDQ®)

Patient Version
Last Modified: 02/12/2014

Suicide Risk in Patients with Cancer



It's common for cancer patients to feel hopeless at times.

Cancer patients sometimes feel hopeless. Although few cancer patients are reported to die by suicide, talk with your doctor if you feel hopeless or have thoughts of suicide. There are ways your doctor can help you. Getting treatment for major depression has been shown to lower the risk of suicide in cancer patients.

Risk factors for suicide may be related to the cancer or other conditions.

General risk factors for suicide include the following:

  • A history of mental problems, especially those that cause you to act without thinking.
  • A family history of suicide.
  • A history of suicide attempts.
  • Depression or feeling hopeless.
  • Drug or alcohol abuse.
  • Recent death of a friend or spouse.
  • Few friends or little family support.

Risk factors that are related to cancer include the following:

An assessment is done to find the reasons for hopeless feelings or thoughts of suicide.

Talking about thoughts of suicide with your doctor gives you a chance to describe your feelings and fears, and may help you feel more in control. Your doctor will try to find out what is causing your hopeless feelings, such as:

  • Symptoms that are not well controlled.
  • Fear of having a painful death.
  • Fear of being alone during your cancer experience.

You can find out what may be done to help relieve your emotional and physical pain.

Controlling symptoms caused by cancer and cancer treatment is an important goal in preventing suicide.

Having constant discomfort or pain can cause you to feel desperate. Keeping pain and other symptoms under control will help to:

  • Relieve distress.
  • Make you feel more comfortable.
  • Prevent thoughts of suicide.

Treatment may include antidepressants. Some antidepressants take a few weeks to work. The doctor may prescribe other medicines that work quickly to relieve distress until the antidepressant begins to work. Patients usually are given only a small number of doses at a time. For your safety, it's important to have frequent contact with a health care professional and avoid being alone until your symptoms are controlled. Your health care team can help you find social support.

Losing a loved one to suicide is especially hard for the family and friends.

The shock and grief felt after the loss of a loved one to suicide is very difficult. Family members and others who loved the patient may feel like they have been left or rejected. They may feel guilty or angry or they may feel responsible for the suicide. Talking with a professional or a support group can be very helpful for family members and others who loved the patient. Support groups can:

  • Offer friendship.
  • Give you time to talk about feelings.
  • Help you find ways to cope with the loss.

It may help just to know that these feelings are felt by others.