Mind and Body

Cancer Risk Higher with Mental Illness

People who have schizophrenia or bipolar disorder appear to have more than a two-fold higher risk for cancer.

Close-up photo of a young man

One reason may be that people with serious mental illness are more likely to smoke. Or, it may be that those with mental illness aren't getting the cancer screenings they need.

Increased risk

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine looked at data on more than 3,300 people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. They found that 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 when compared with the general population.

The risks were similar for patients with bipolar disorder.

"The increased risk is definitely there, but we're not entirely sure why," says study leader Gail Daumit, M.D. "Something's going on."

More likely to smoke

Dr. Daumit says the higher risk for lung cancer could be because people with serious mental illness often smoke.

People who have schizophrenia or bipolar disease are also less likely to have children, a factor affecting breast cancer risk. Dr. Daumit also says that several drugs used to treat mental illness increase the hormone prolactin, another link to breast cancer.

Other factors

Lifestyle choices, such as a lack of exercise and poor diet, may also increase risk - especially for colorectal cancer.

The study results were published in the journal Psychiatric Services.

Although the study points out a connection between mental illness and cancer risk, it didn't prove that one causes the other.

About 5 percent of Americans have a serious mental illness.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

Online Resources

(Our Organization is not responsible for the content of Internet sites.)

National Alliance on Mental Illness - What is mental illness?

National Institute of Mental Health

National Institute of Mental Health - Finding Help for Mental Illnesses

September 2012

Where to Find Help

Mental conditions are real and can be life-threatening, but they're also common and quite treatable.

How do you know you need help? As with many physical conditions, change is the main sign. If you have a marked and persistent change in personality, mood, or eating or sleeping habits, that's a sign something may be going on.

Symptoms to look for:

  • Feeling unable to cope with your day-to-day problems, work assignments, or usual household activities

  • Being overwhelmed by a deep sense of sadness, hopelessness, or helplessness

  • Having extreme mood swings, from high or hyper to down in the dumps

  • Abusing alcohol or drugs

  • Getting very angry or acting violently

  • Having thoughts about suicide or hurting someone else

  • Having a plan of how you would commit suicide

If you experience any of these symptoms, get treatment sooner than later. These are warning signs that you definitely need help.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

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