Schizophrenia, Cancer, and Injuries: Understanding Risk

  • Yow!  Yow!  Yow!


    My right leg was in pain.  It got worse because I went to work for two days.  By Friday morning, I was in tears on the phone to see how my insurance would cover a trip to the hospital's ER.  I called in sick to work and took car service there and back.


    Total time: two hours and twenty minutes from when I first signed in to when I exited the exam room.  My experience in dashing off solo to an emergency room is the prelude to today's topic: that people with schizophrenia and bipolar are at greater risk for cancer and serious injury.


    My story differs in that I was lucky I had my wits about me: the muscle strain was the result of my own effort as an athlete: I did a new routine at the gym Monday night, and by Tuesday morning my leg was on fire.

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    I'll give you the low-down on the latest news: the statistics and the reasons why those of us with mental illnesses might be at elevated risk.  According to new Johns Hopkins research, individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar or serious depression are 2.6 times more likely to develop cancer.


    People with schizophrenia were more than 4.5 times more likely to develop lung cancer, 3.5 times more likely to develop colorectal cancer and nearly three times more likely to develop breast cancer.  Individuals with bipolar had related high risk for these illnesses.


    The elevated risk for the types of cancers talked about had these possible roots: for lung cancer, the greater number of people with schizophrenia who smoke cigarettes; for breast cancer, the side effect of certain atypical schizophrenia medications that can raise prolactin levels, and for colorectal cancer, smoking, lack of physical activity and a diet lacking fruits and vegetables.


    Women with schizophrenia are thought to have a higher risk for breast cancer because it primarily effects those of us who haven't give birth to children.  Yet I question this particular fact because my mother developed breast cancer when she was 61.  She also smoked cigarettes for over 40 years.


    In a study published in Injury Prevention online in June, individuals with serious mental disorders "were almost twice as likely to end up in a hospital's emergency room or inpatient department because of an injury and about 4.5 times more likely to die from these injuries," according to the account at


    The idea that substance abuse could cause intentional and unintentional injury was raised.  Also considered a factor was unsafe housing and poorly maintained neighborhoods.


    Researchers also questioned the availability of preventive testing and treatment for individuals with these kinds of diagnoses.


    The two highest causes of death for people with serious mental illnesses are cardiovascular disease and cancer.


    I would submit that the symptoms of schizophrenia might cause a person to have a poor outcome: cognitive impairment might make it difficult for a patient to follow-through on treatment directions.  Paranoia and fear could cause a person to distrust what the doctor is telling him.  The lack of a social support network could inhibit the ability of a person to get help navigating the healthcare system.  A sense of hopelessness might prevail too.


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    I'm lucky that day-by-day my right leg is getting a little better.  I stayed in my apartment the whole weekend and called in sick that next Monday to rest up some more and run a limited number of errands I couldn't do over the weekend.

    I'll be able to return to the gym when I'm back to normal.


    Not all of us will have this luxury.  What's the solution to the alarming news story?  Of course, better health habits and preventive treatment.

    To that end, I'll talk about schizophrenia and cigarette smoking in August.


    Pedersen, T. (2012). Cancer, Injuries More Likely in People with Serious Mental Disorders. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 22, 2012, from

Published On: July 25, 2012