Researchers say cancer diagnosis increases death risk from heart attack, suicide

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(CBS News) A cancer diagnosis does not guarantee death from cancer. A new study shows that patients diagnosed with cancer are at higher risk of death from heart problems or suicide.

The traumatic experience of being diagnosed with cancer may trigger other health consequences beyond the effects of the disease, researchers found.

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The study, led by epidemiologists at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, involved more than 6 million Swedes. After examining 1991 to 2006 data of patients' cancer diagnoses and risk of suicide or death from cardiovascular disease, researchers found that patients who had recently been diagnosed with cancer had increased risks of both suicide and death from heart problems.

The study was published April 5 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Cancer patients were 12.6 times more likely than non-cancer patients to die by suicide in the first week after their diagnosis, and 3.1 times more likely to during the first year. Cancer patients were also 5.6 times more likely than non-cancer patients to die from cardiovascular causes in the first week after their diagnosis, and 3.3 times more likely during the first 4 weeks, the risk rapidly decreasing during the first year.

"That the risk increase appeared so quickly after cancer diagnosis and then decreased in magnitude during the first year after diagnosis really illustrated the role of the diagnosis itself on these adverse outcomes," study author Dr. Katja Fall, epidemiologist at the University of Orebro, told HealthDay.

Not surprisingly, cancer patients with a less favorable prognosis were at higher risk for death from heart problems or suicide. The study shows cancer patients face potentially deadly health risks long before the cancer itself takes its toll - and the psychological impact of a cancer diagnosis is serious.

And, even if they survive the cancer, health problems aren't over for them. Another study showed that cancer survivors die of other diseases 49 percent of the time, HealthPop reported. Cardiovascular disease was the number one culprit.

What can be done to lower the statistics? According to Unnur Valdimarsdottir, study author and head of the Center of Public Health Sciences at the University of Iceland, more support along with the cancer diagnosis could reduce the risk of death.

"We do believe that we have identified a critical time window where the resources of health care providers of cancer patients needs to be directed," Valdimarsdottir told NPR. "The important thing is that health care professionals, cancer patients themselves and their significant others are aware of these risks, and remain observant of early signs and symptoms of such serious hazards."