TO THE EDITOR: The article by Ringash that was recently published in Journal of Clinical Oncology provided a compelling narrative of both the improvements made in head and neck cancer survivorship, as well as the challenges created by longer-term treatment and associated toxicities. There are currently at least 280,000 head and neck cancer survivors in the United States. As the article by Ringash stated, the upturn in head and neck cancer survivorship in the last three decades has coincided with the emergence of human papilloma virus-positive oropharyngeal cancer, as well as a decrease in tobacco use in the general population. These make it a challenge to isolate survival gains as a function of improved therapy from the natural prognostic value of a diagnosis of human papilloma virus-positive oropharyngeal cancer. Whatever the case, the fact that more than one-quarter million Americans are currently alive after a diagnosis of head and neck cancer means there needs to be a more deliberate effort in longer-term management of treatment-related toxicities, some of which are lifelong.
We agree with Ringash’s conclusion that new models of care need to be developed in response to the significant quality-of-life issues faced by patients with head and neck cancer. The Institute of Medicine publication From Cancer Patient to Cancer Survivor: Lost in Transition, also cited by Ringash, called for a clear individualized survivorship plan for cancer patients. There is a serious need for this model to be implemented universally in head and neck cancer management. Although we agree with Ringash that patients with head and neck cancer face competing mortality risks from second primary cancers and other noncancers, what we found lacking was recognition of an important competing cause of mortality in head and neck cancer survivors: suicide.
Suicide associated with head and neck cancer is not just a competing cause of death; it is also a quality-of-life issue. Many authors agree that head and neck cancer is among the top cancer sites associated with suicide. One national study of 1.3 million cancer patients even found that head and neck cancer carried the highest risk of suicide among cancer survivors. As a quality-of-life issue as well as a competing cause of death, the elevated risk of head and neck cancer-related suicide, although it peaks during the first few years after diagnosis, remains virtually throughout the course of the cancer survivor’s life. Additionally, some other well-known quality-of-life issues associated with head and neck cancer (eg, pain, disability, esthetic compromise and body image issues, psychosocial function, anxiety, emotional distress, and depression) are all associated with suicide. Therefore, it is difficult to have a discussion of quality-of-life interventions in head and neck cancer without addressing the issue of suicide.
Thus, we believe that suicide in patients with head and neck cancer should be addressed as a major threat to cancer survivorship. Cardiovascular disease, for example, is a known competing cause of death among patients with head and neck cancer, and is listed in Figure 4 of Ringash’s article. Cardiovascular disease may be managed for a long time; however, when a cancer patient decides that he/she is “better off dead,” a finality, or terminality, is invoked. This is quite unique to suicide compared with other competing causes of death.
Thus, in the urgent call for “new strategies and models of care to better address quality-of-life issues and meet the needs of survivors of head and neck cancer,” we believe it is pertinent that suicide is recognized as an important threat to head and neck cancer survivorship.
DOI: 10.1200/JCO.2015.65.4673; published online ahead of print at www.jco.org on January 19, 2016
To read or download the full article, please visit: http://jco.ascopubs.org/content/34/10/1151.full.pdf+html*This news story was resourced by the Oral Cancer Foundation, and vetted for appropriateness and accuracy.