Three Symptoms Suggest Higher Risk for Self-injury in Cancer

Moderate to severe anxiety, depression, and shortness of breath indicate increased risk for nonfatal self-injury (NFSI) among patients newly diagnosed with cancer, according to a Canadian study.

In a population-based, case-control study, each of these symptoms was associated with an increase of at least 60% in the risk for NFSI in the following 180 days, the investigators report.

“Clinicians should know that self-injury is a real problem after a cancer diagnosis,” lead investigator Julie Hallet, MD, an associate scientist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, Ontario, told Medscape Medical News.

Self-injury “does not necessarily represent an attempted suicide,” she added. “While our data do not allow us to know what the intent was, we know from other work that the repercussions of distress in patients with cancer are much broader than suicide. Self-injury can be a means to cope with psychological difficulties for some patients, without intent for suicide.”

The study was published online March 31 in JAMA Oncology.

Nine Common Symptoms

The study included adults who were diagnosed with cancer between January 1, 2007, and March 31, 2019, and had completed the Edmonton Symptom Assessment System (ESAS) evaluation within 36 months of their index cancer diagnosis. ESAS evaluates nine common cancer-associated symptoms, including pain, tiredness, nausea, depression, anxiety, drowsiness, appetite, well-being, and shortness of breath, on a patient-reported scale of 0 (absence of symptom) to 10 (worst possible symptom).

The analysis included 406 patients who had visited an emergency department for an NFSI within 180 days of their ESAS evaluation, as well as 1624 matched control patients with cancer who did not have an NFSI. Case patients and control patients were matched according to age at cancer diagnosis, sex, prior self-injury within 5 years of being diagnosed with cancer, and cancer type. Nonmatched covariates included psychiatric illness and therapy received before NFSI, comorbidity burden, material deprivation, and cancer stage.

Toward Tailored Intervention

A higher proportion of case patients than control patients reported moderate to severe scores for all nine ESAS symptoms. In an adjusted analysis, moderate to severe anxiety (odds ratio [OR], 1.61), depression (OR, 1.66), and shortness of breath (OR, 1.65) were independently associated with higher odds of subsequent NFSI. Each 10-point increase in total ESAS score also was associated with increased risk (OR, 1.51).

“These findings are important to enhance the use of screening ESAS scores to better support patients,” say the authors. “Scores from ESAS assessments can be used to identify patients at higher risk of NFSI, indicating higher level of distress, and help direct tailored assessment and intervention.”

In prior work, Hallet’s group showed that NFSI occurs in 3 of every 1000 patients with cancer. NFSI is more frequent among younger patients and those with a history of prior mental illness. “Identifying patients at risk in clinical practice requires you to inquire about a patient’s prior history, identify high symptom scores and ask about them, and trigger intervention pathways when risk is identified,” said Hallet.

“For example, a young patient with head and neck cancer and a prior history of mental illness who reports high scores for anxiety and drowsiness would be at high risk of self-injury,” she added. Such a patient should be referred to psycho-oncology, psychiatry, or social work. “To facilitate this, we are working on prognostic scores that can be integrated in clinical practice, such as in electronic medical record, to flag patients at risk,” said Hallet. “Future work will also need to identify the optimal care pathways for at-risk patients.”

Self-injury vs Suicidality

Commenting on the study for Medscape Medical News, Madeline Li, MD, PhD, a psychiatrist and clinician-scientist at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, said that the findings are “underwhelming” because they tell us what is already known — that “NFSI is associated with distress, and cancer is a stressor.” It would have been more interesting to ask how to distinguish patients at risk for suicide from those at risk for self-harm without suicide, she added.

“The way these authors formulated NFSI included both self-harm intent and suicidal intent,” she explained. The researchers compared patients who were at risk for these two types of events with patients without NFSI. “When we see self-harm without suicidal intent in the emergency room, it’s mostly people making cries for help,” said Li. “These are people who cut their wrists or take small overdoses on purpose without the intent to die. It would have been more interesting to see if there are different risk factors for people who are just going to self-harm vs those who are actually going to attempt suicide.”

The study’s identification of risk factors for NSFI is important because “it does tell us that when there’s anxiety, depression, and shortness of breath, we should pay attention to these patients and do something about it,” said Li. Still, research in cancer psychiatry needs to shift its focus from identifying and addressing existing risk factors to preventing them from developing, she added.

“We need to move earlier and provide emotional and mental health support to cancer patients to prevent them from becoming suicidal, rather than intervening when somebody already is,” Li concluded.

The study was funded by the Hanna Research Award from the Division of Surgical Oncology at the Odette Cancer Centre–Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and by a Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre Alternate Funding Plan Innovation grant. It was also supported by ICES, which is funded by an annual grant from the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. Hallet has received personal fees (speaking honoraria) from Ipsen Biopharmaceuticals Canada and AAA outside the submitted work. Li reported no relevant financial relationships.

JAMA Oncol. Published online March 31, 2022. Full text

Kate Johnson is a Montreal-based freelance medical journalist who has been writing for more than 30 years about all areas of medicine.

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