Unknown Causes of Death in Cancer Patients

January, 01, 2024 | Select Oncology Journal Articles


Deaths from an unknown cause are difficult to adjudicate and oncologic studies of comparative effectiveness often demonstrate inconsistencies in incorporating these deaths and competing events (eg, heart disease and stroke) in their analyses. In this study, we identify cancer patients most at risk for death of an unknown cause.


This retrospective, population-based study used cancer registry data from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results database (1992-2015). The absolute rate of unknown causes of death (COD) cases stratified by sex, marital status, race, treatment, and cancer site were calculated and a multivariable logistic regression model was applied to obtain adjusted odds ratios with 95% CIs.


Out of 7,154,779 cancer patients across 22 cancer subtypes extracted from Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results, 3,448,927 died during follow-up and 276,068 (7.4%) of these deaths were from unknown causes. Patients with an unknown COD had a shorter mean survival time compared with patients with known COD (36.3 vs 65.7 mo, P 5 to 10 y). One, 3, and 5-year cancer-specific survival (CSS) calculations including unknown COD were significantly decreased compared with CSS estimates excluding cancer patients with unknown COD.


Of the patients, 7.4% died of unknown causes during follow-up and the proportion of death was higher with longer follow-up and among more indolent cancers. The attribution of high percentages of unknown COD to cancer or non-cancer causes could impact population-based cancer registry studies or clinical trial outcomes with respect to measures involving CSS and mortality.

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