Finding relief: Managing stress after a breast cancer diagnosis

May 17, 2021

In November of 2016, at 34, I was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. Being diagnosed with cancer is overwhelming to say the least, with various doctors’ appointments, scans, treatments, and procedures. I knew nothing about my diagnosis, what I was about to endure, or how to handle the stress and anxiety of it all.

Soon after starting treatment I was dealing with joint pain, bone pain, body aches, and mental aspects of cancer nobody had prepared me for. I am a huge advocate for only using medicines to manage side effects if I can’t find other ways of relief and calming. I have found many useful approaches that each give their own type of relief, though they have been done over time and throughout different stages of my fight, treatment, and healing.

As if navigating the cancer world isn’t difficult enough, trying to find some type of “normal” at home can just add to your stress. I have found through my experiences that I had to have an open mind in trying new things that can help with the stress. There are many resources out there. Managing effects is about finding what works for you, staying positive, and healing through the pain. What works for me may not work for you.

From diagnosis, I struggled with sleep, terrible neuropathy in my feet, joint pain, hot flashes, anxiety, and weight gain. So I made myself a priority and set out to find some practices and rituals to help find relief. First, I dove into the world of essential oils. I knew a bit about them before my diagnosis which helped tremendously. However, I did a little research and learned what works best for me. Did you know that oils can be applied topically and diffused to aid in pain relief, relieve stress, anxiety, and to help with sleep? My husband loves when I am diffusing oils in our home and he reaps the benefits as well.

I joined a local wellness center after my diagnosis, where I was introduced to yoga nidra. Once you became a member, these services were free to those living with cancer. I was nervous at first because I could not imagine myself doing any type of yoga with the weight gain and pain I’d experienced since starting treatment, not to mention doing this in front of others.

When I arrived at class, we were instructed to leave our shoes at the door. The room was dark, blankets and pillows were laid around the space, wonderful meditation music was playing, and it was decorated with lit candles. My tension about the experience instantaneously melted away. The environment was pure relaxation. We laid quietly with our eyes closed as our instructor led us through the practice of yoga nidra. Imagine feeling as if you are asleep but consciously aware of your whole being. I cannot recommend this practice enough to everyone. It is so peaceful and helps with anxiety and stress from all things cancer and life in general. Seriously, look it up and give it a try in the comfort of your own home.

After suffering extreme hot flashes from both chemotherapy and hormonal therapy (my cancer was hormone receptor-positive), a friend told me that she saw an acupuncturist for her stomach issues and shared with me that this practice helps to relieve all types of ailments. I decided to give acupuncture a try. Acupuncture involves the insertion of very thin needles through your skin at strategic points on your body. A key component of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is most commonly used to treat pain but can also be helpful for stress management. I hate needles so I was very hesitant at first. But on further thought I realized we cancer patients are practically experts at being a human pincushion, so what is a few more?! My first session was very relaxing as my acupuncturist focused on areas to target my hot flashes, joint pain, and stress. The needles did not cause any of the pain or discomfort that I had imagined, and overall it was a great experience. I ended up going for around 6 months and it helped greatly with my aches and pains. Unfortunately, my hot flashes are just too determined to quit.

Lastly, the chiropractor. Why did I wait so long to make this appointment?! Yes, chiropractors work with oncology patients! Due to weight gain and stress, my neck and back suffer from tension. My chiropractor helps by giving me stretches to do regularly. He also has machines in the office that assist in loosening up my back and body to allow my doctor to adjust me. I was terrified on my first visit, and it is always somewhere in the back of my mind, “What if she snaps my neck, like in the movies? Ha!'' While he holds my neck literally in his hands just before cracking it to the left and then to the right, in my head I repeat, “Don’t tense up.” The relief, the sweet relief! I sleep like an angel now. I see my chiropractor about once every 2 weeks and I can’t live without it.

In my mission to lose this extra weight, I decided I needed to do something once and for all. I signed up to try kickboxing classes. Just the thought of it had me worried, especially with my joint pain and neuropathy in my feet. I wasn’t sure if it would help or hinder the way my body feels each day. Plus, I used to be an athlete before my cancer diagnosis. I was so unhappy with the way I looked, I gained over 50 pounds from treatment and medications. Let’s be honest, I was putting pictures in my head that kept trying to talk me out of not going. Cancer takes enough from us, I was not going to let it take control of my life. I owed myself at least that much to try it out.

I have never sweat as much as I do at kickboxing. It is never boring, always a new routine and there are women of all shapes, ages, and sizes in my classes. I couldn’t feel more comfortable! Kickboxing has allowed me to get back into high-intensity workouts. The weight is slowly coming off and my body craves the workouts. Of course I still have aches and pains and losing weight is almost impossible, but I am getting healthy, making myself a priority, and most importantly, I am NOT allowing cancer to control me.


Shannon McQuillan Norris, 38, was diagnosed with stage II, hormone receptor-positive breast cancer in 2016. She lives in Bowie, Maryland, with her husband of 7 years, their three dogs, and a foster dog. Shannon has worked in Catholic education for 16 years in various roles. She and her husband just completed training to become foster-to-adopt parents. 

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