Euphoria or posttraumatic stress disorder?

Euphoria or posttraumatic stress disorder?(ELENA ELISSEEVA/ISTOCKPHOTO)Experts liken the early period of breast cancer recovery to grieving. "There's a piece of grief and loss in every single aspect of [this experience]," notes Robin Hershkowitz, program director for women's cancers at CancerCare, a national nonprofit support services group based in New York City. There's grief in hearing the word "cancer," in losing a body part, or gaining a scar, a "physical reminder of what you went through," she says. Not to mention sadness about the loss of time, of money, of control over your life. And for some, the loss of hair or the chance to bear children.

You and the people around you may have expected relief instead—and so the difficulty of this period (for some women, though not all) may come as a shock.

"People were saying, 'Oh, you must be so relieved you're getting well, this is so great,'" recalls Pam Tazioli, 54, of Seattle. "Mmm...not quite."

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There was no euphoria either for San Franciscan Hendy Dayton, 48, who was diagnosed with stage II cancer and endured a lumpectomy, 16 weeks of chemo, and 35 days of radiation. After treatment, "I was still bald," she says. "It was like posttraumatic stress disorder. I just cried a lot, and thought, 'I can't believe what I just went through.'"

Next Page: Getting over the shock [ pagebreak ]"I think every [patient] goes into an initial 'cancer shock,'" agrees Georgia Stafford, 52, of Three Rivers, Mich., a 20-year survivor. Though it has been two decades, she can still clearly remember those first days and weeks after her mastectomy. "You're going through the motions but not understanding more than half of it," she says.

"I was not prepared for how long it took before I didn't think about cancer constantly," recalls Lynn Prowitt-Smith, 42, an editor from Fairfield, Conn. For her, it lasted a year.

It's important to first set reasonable expectations for how long the physical side of the healing can take. Julia Rowland, PhD, director of the National Cancer Institute's Office of Cancer Survivorship, looks to the date of your first symptom—whether that was when you first felt a lump or were told you had an abnormal mammogram—to make a rough estimate. If it took nine months from that first sign through to the completion of treatment, "your recovery will take at least that amount of time," she explains. "You need time to heal." The emotional side of things may take longer still.

The National Cancer Institute's online booklet, Facing Forward: Life After Cancer Treatment, offers insight and tips on dealing with both the physical and emotional sides of recovery.