Breathing Through Cancer

If the breath is life, how much time do we spend breathing healthy, functional breaths?

Following a stage 4 breast cancer diagnosis and being breathless for much of her life (due to severe asthma), Louisa writes about how our breathing may be impacted during cancer and is passionate about the power of breathing well with and after cancer.


Breath is Life 

“We find a concomitant low oxygen state in all serious disease states… Low oxygen in the body tissues is a sure indicator of disease…Hypoxia, or lack of oxygen in the tissues, is the fundamental cause of all degenerative diseases. 

Oxygen is the source of life to all cells.” 

Stephen Levine, Psychologist and Spiritual Teacher

We don’t have to think about it and will automatically breathe around 23,000 breaths a day. We have been breathing before our cancer diagnosis, and it’s a forgotten vehicle carrying us through every appointment, treatment and scan and moving us to live as best as we can after. 

How we breathe while moving through various phases of our lives can change without us knowing, from belly breaths as babies to hormones changing our breathing rates and shortness of breath near the end of life. Life is what happens between our first and last breath. Our breath carries us from one moment to the next.

According to Cancer Research UK, “between 10 and 70 out of every 100 people (between 10 and 70%) with advanced cancer experience breathlessness. This figure rises to between 60 and 90 out of every 100 people (between 60 and 90%) for people who have lung cancer”. 


When I received my diagnosis, it took my breath away, not in a good way, of course. In the worst possible way.

Emotional distress and physical health can also lead to dysfunctional breathing, which can then become a habit during and after a cancer diagnosis. Some cancers and cancer treatments may cause shortness of breath or feelings of breathlessness. This is called dyspnea and can be quite uncomfortable and raise anxiety levels for some at times.

We breathe differently depending on the state of our nervous system, and after a cancer diagnosis, it is natural that this will stimulate the fight or flight response of the sympathetic nervous system. We must do our best in the most difficult of times to balance the fight and flight and rest and digest as much as we can and we can do that using our breath. The inhale is often linked to the sympathetic and parasympathetic; therefore, we can focus on some longer exhales to help reset a little. Easier said than done, of course. 

I experienced a lot of breathlessness before cancer. I had severe asthma as a child and was never taught the basics of breathing well. It would have also been beneficial to know that if I was struggling to take a breath in, focusing on the breath out first may assist with making space for the next breath in.

The stress and tension following a cancer diagnosis may also increase the use of our muscles in the shoulders and upper chest, which can tire quickly, which can lead to more headaches and make us feel more breathless, and have a negative impact on our energy levels. 

Become conscious of the quality of your breathing. Take a few minutes daily to do some shoulder rolls, place a hand on your belly and breathe slowly in and out of the nose if you can. Breathe in calm and relaxation, breathe out any tension. 


Get Louisa’s Good Breath Guide free at

If you have any questions or would like a free chat with Louisa, please email her

You can read Louisa’s incredible story here.

Louisa Rasmussen

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Despite having the support of family, friends, and medical professionals, it’s normal to feel isolated and alone. 

However, you are not alone. You are now a part of a community who have gone through similar experiences and have come out stronger on the other side. What-Next is run by individuals who have either had cancer or supported someone with cancer.

We want you to know that you can overcome this challenge and live your best life along the way.

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