Mary Jo Podgurski

Column Mary Jo Podgurski

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 68 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Advice for dealing with cancer

February 27, 2013

Q.Is it true that you’re a breast cancer survivor? Because my mom was just diagnosed with breast cancer and I’m scared. Will she be OK? What should she do to get ready for radiation? What can I do to help her? Thanks for letting me ask you this personal question. I know that you say in class that personal questions shouldn’t be asked. I’m the oldest and she’s a single mom so I think I need to step up.

13-year-old male

Mary Jo’s response:

It’s my pleasure to respond to you. One of my class ground rules does indeed involve avoiding personal questions, but that refers to questions about sexuality. I’m happy to answer your question. I would also be happy to talk with your mom, and I hope you’ll continue texting with me.

Cancer is a scary word, but not all cancers are the same. In fact, many, many cancers are very treatable. I was blessed to have a small cancer that was caught early. My treatment wasn’t difficult at all; I was able to teach the entire time. If I talk with your mom I can better understand her diagnosis. Her recovery will probably be smooth.

I’m certain your mom is proud of your desire to step up. Have you shared your anxiety with her? Please tell her your feelings. Ask her how you can best help. If she’s having surgery she will need support. Volunteer to do household tasks and care for younger siblings. Make her small, healthy snacks. Keep stress to a minimum. Talk with supportive adults in your family – grandparents, aunts, uncles, and your mom’s friends. Volunteer to coordinate visitors so she can have quiet time but also enjoy company.

Radiation kills cancer cells. There are some definite steps your mom can take to build herself up so she is ready for treatment.

1. Prepare mentally and spiritually: I read a wonderful book for breast cancer survivors called “Joy is a Plum Colored Acrobat.” I know that sounds like a strange title, but the book includes visualizations for women facing chemotherapy or radiation. Another helpful book is the “Pink Prayer Book: Coping, Healing, Surviving, Thriving.” Personally, I thought radiation was a deeply spiritual experience. I honestly was never afraid. The hospital staff were supportive, caring and upbeat. They made the experience very positive.

2. Eat well: Good nutrition is important to help keep the body strong. Your mom should ask her radiation oncologist for nutritional suggestions based on her personal needs.

3. Reduce and manage stress: Easing stress can help your mom.

4. Get informed: There are a lot of myths surrounding radiation and cancer. I’m an educator, so I believe education is important. There are many wonderful resources online – a few are, and

5. Get enough rest: I actually loved this aspect of radiation. My treatments were after school at 3:45 p.m. After the treatment I’d curl up with a good book, a big glass of water (I liked the sparkling kind) and some of my favorite music. I didn’t usually nap, but I gave my body a chance to relax and recuperate every day.

If your mom is having difficulty preparing for treatment, ask her to seek support from her health-care provider. Talking with survivors can help. Again, just give her my cell number. I’ll be happy to connect with her.

It’s great that you’re so supportive. Good luck to you and your mom.

Continue to Vote for Teen Outreach through March 11:

Anyone who read the O-R article on Feb. 16 knows we are one of three finalists for a $10,000 IKEA Life Improvement Project to upgrade our teen facilities. The winner is the group that receives the most votes (you can vote once a day with each email address through March 11).

Here are step-by-step directions:

1. Go to

2. Scroll down to: To get started, select a store!

3. On the drop-down box, click “Pittsburgh.”

4. A list of the three projects will appear with check boxes.

5. Click the box next to “Washington Hospital Teen Outreach.” Make sure you have the correct box.

6. Scroll down to “Not an IKEA worker?” and type your e-mail address in each of two boxes.

7. There’s a red/white/yellow box below that. In the yellow box, type the two words printed in the white half of the box.

8. Click the green button to “Cast Your Vote.”

9. Visit the page every day to vote again.



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