Abstract Background Breast cancer is a common tumor in China and has become a public health problem in modern society. Stress plays an important role in the occurrence and progression of cancer. At present, the current situation of stress on breast cancer survivors (BCSs) in China has not been fully understood. This study aims to explore the stress and coping strategies of Chinese BCSs, which provide suggestions to help BCSs reduce stress. Methods Sixty-three BCSs from the Shanghai Cancer Rehabilitation Club in China were included in this study and were divided into eight focus groups. These were transcribed verbatim, coded using thematic analysis and analyzed using NVivo 11. Results Three themes were extracted from the data to address our research objectives: stress, coping strategies and expectations. The stress of BCSs included psychological stress, stress caused by physical pain, economic stress, stress caused by the change of life status, and stress caused by information overload; the coping strategies included self-strategies and help from others; from the perspective of the survivors, they put forward their expectations for both the society and themselves. Conclusions This study shows that BCSs face a variety of stress. In the face of stress, BCSs need comprehensive support, including social and family support to cope with stressors. The findings from this study provide evidence for improving the quality of life among BCSs.