Return to Work Associated With Improved Mental Health in Cancer Survivors
WASHINGTON — Kelli Ahnen, a 63-year-old former nursery manager and cancer survivor, found returning to work after a battle with breast cancer improved the quality of her mental health.
“I went back to work and it helped. It took my mind off dwelling on everything I went through and what might happen,” said Ahnen.
Ahnen was diagnosed with an invasive ductal carcinoma in her left breast in July 2015 and by August had undergone a lumpectomy surgery to remove the cancer tumor and six weeks of radiation treatment.
“It was very emotional, not knowing is it going to get it all? What’s happening? But after a few times you get used to it and get it done. But the fatigue just overwhelms you. It’s unlike anything else I’ve ever had in my life. I had zero energy. There were times I didn’t even want to hold my head up,” said Ahnen.
Prior to undergoing treatment for breast cancer, Ahnen worked at a tropical plant nursery called Color Zone Tropicals Inc.
The nursery, located in Winter Garden, Florida, sold about $250,000 in plants each year to interior and exterior landscapers who would use them in airports, Disney facilities and other locations around the state.
“I would go out in the evening and walk through the greenhouses and look at how beautiful they were. It was very therapeutic,” said Ahnen.
After radiation treatment and surgery, Ahnen experienced burns all over her body that took about three months to completely heal.
“It was about three months before I was completely healed physically and mentally to even think about going back to work,” said Ahnen.
“A tropical plant nursery involves a lot of physical work … lifting plants. When I went back, I worked in the office as a manager and did the deliveries of the plants, but I couldn’t work in the greenhouses for really a year because I was weaker in my left side from the surgeries,” continued Ahnen.
Ahnen said she’s stayed in touch with several women from a cancer survivor group and about half of them have returned to work, but unfortunately several of their cancers came back.
“That’s a setback mentally because … ‘oh my gosh, that could be me,’” said Ahnen.
Ahnen may be one of many cancer survivors who have mentally benefited from a return to work, as findings from a recent study of working and non-working patients with cancer specific and mental health parameters shows that non-working patients had higher levels of depression.
The researchers found that 73.7% of all patients, or roughly 317 individuals, returned to work after one year, and non-working patients reported higher levels of depression, anxiety, distress than working patients over time.
“Return to work can thus be associated with improved mental health in cancer survivors,” write the researchers in the study.
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