Survivors Of Head And Neck Cancer At Higher Risk Of Suicide

Aug 8, 2018

The suicide rate among survivors of head and neck cancers is more than four times higher than suicide among the general U.S. population; male survivors of these cancers are six times more likely than females to commit suicide.

Researcher Nosayaba Osazuwa-Peters, an assistant professor at the St. Louis University School of Medicine, presented these findings on Tuesday at a symposium on head and neck cancer survivorship hosted at the UPMC Cancer Pavilion.

Survivors of these diseases often have facial disfigurements and other lifelong side effects that require interventions to help them talk or eat. Osazuwa-Peters said some people prefer to keep their voice boxes or faces unchanged by surgery rather than undergo treatment.

“You cannot disguise it,” he said. “If I had prostate cancer right now for example, you would not know unless I told you. Right, but, head and neck cancer patients, they wear their cancer every day.”

Considering this, Osazuwa-Peters said health care professionals need clearly defined suicide screening tools for these patients, who will require social support long after they’ve ended chemotherapy.

“After we treat [patients] for cancer they don’t go back to where they used to be,” said symposium organizer Jonas Johnson, who specializes in throat cancer at the University of Pittsburgh. “Survivorship programs in the United States, especially those programs directed at cancer of the head or neck, or the throat, are in their infancy … and there’s great opportunity to do a better job in the future.”

Head and neck cancers effect between 30,000 to 50,000 people a year. Many diagnoses are associated with smoking or human papillomavirus. 

90.5 WESA receives funding from UPMC.

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