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Jimmie Holland Dedicated Her Life to Supporting the Psychosocial Needs of People with Cancer

By Beth Fand Incollingo
Jimmie C. Holland, MD
On December 24, 2017, at age 89, Jimmie C. Holland, MD, known as the mother of psychosocial oncology, died. The oncology community has lost a pioneer in the integration of humanity into cancer care.

The beloved mother and grandmother, who was married to noted oncologist James F. Holland, MD, succumbed to cardiovascular disease at their home in Scarsdale, N.Y., according to U.S. News & World Report.

For her countless contributions to supportive oncology care, Holland was named an OncLive Giant of Cancer Care in 2014.

Holland, who worked until the end of her life in the field she was largely responsible for founding, had served, since 1989, as the Wayne E. Chapman Chair in Psychiatric Oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK), in New York. At that institution in 1977, she founded the nation’s first full-time psychiatric program in an oncology center, and since then had continued to treat patients and conduct research there. In 2013, she told OncLive that she was working 12-hour days.

Holland had also helped her field evolve by launching 2 professional societies. The International Psycho-Oncology Society got off the ground in 1984, and in 1992 Holland co-founded its journal, Psycho-Oncology. She launched the American Psychosocial Oncology Society in 1986.

Her only nod to her age was her interest in working with people of her generation. She worked within MSK’s 65+ program to help older patients get through their cancer treatment, and conducted research focused on psychotherapy for elderly patients with cancer.

In part due to her work with that program, Holland, with Mindy Greenstein, PhD, co-authored a 2014 book titled Lighter as We Go: Virtues, Character Strengths, and Aging. Among the inspirations for the book was Holland’s Vintage Readers’ Book Program, which she had started as part of the 65+ program in 2011. Its members, older cancer patients, were reading the Harvard Classics and gathering monthly to discuss them. Holland also co-wrote The Human Side of Cancer: Living With Hope, Coping With Uncertainty, which was published in 2000, as well as the first textbook on psycho-oncology, The Handbook of Psycho-Oncology, in 1989.

Despite her focus on an older population, Holland also gave her attention to the younger members of her field. She supervised fellows in psychology and psychiatry, trained them in the psychological care of patients with cancer and provided them with the history of the evolution of psychosocial oncology.

Holland wanted her students to understand that “you have to treat the whole person, not just the tumor,” she told OncLive. “To do that, you must have a good sense of your own vulnerability, because they need to sense that you are someone who’s there with them, that you’ll go through the illness with them. Patients are very keenly aware of whether a doctor is concerned for them. The bottom line is, as Francis Peabody said, ‘The secret of caring for the patient is caring for the patient.’”

Getting There

Holland had grown up an only child on a cotton farm in Texas, where, she said, “girls get boys’ names and boys get girls’ names.” She was one of just three women in her class at the Baylor University School of Medicine, in Houston.

Her interest in the way patients dealt with illness developed during her medical training, leading to her specialty in psychiatry, which she studied as a resident and research fellow at the Malcolm Bliss Mental Health Center and Washington University School of Medicine, both in St. Louis, and then during a residency and fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Holland met her husband early in her career, and when they married, she moved to Buffalo, where he worked at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

From 1956 through 1973, Holland moved up the ladder to become associate clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the State University of New York in Buffalo. During most of those same years, she held roles at a teaching hospital, moving up from attending psychiatrist to director of the Department of Psychiatry.

From 1972 to 1973, the family moved to the USSR for an academic year. While her husband consulted with the Russian Cancer Institute, Holland worked as a consultant to the Russian Psychiatric Research Institute on a Joint Schizophrenia Research Study. This was during the Cold War, but their work was part of a cultural exchange program between the two countries.

Back in the United States, Holland spent four years at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Hospital, in Bronx, New York, where she rose to the rank of associate professor.

Holland’s husband was a pioneer in the treatment of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and it was by learning about his work that she realized that consideration of psychosocial issues was largely missing from routine cancer care. She saw an opportunity to change that in the 1970s, when the stigma associated with cancer started to fade and patients were no longer being kept in the dark about their diagnoses.

At the time, her husband was chairman of the nation’s first cooperative clinical trials group for cancer, and she encouraged him to add a committee for psychosocial issues. When he did, Holland joined the effort, helping to conduct the first clinical trials on quality of life in patients with cancer.

In 1977, she was hired at MSK to start building a Psychiatry Services group. One of the team’s first tasks was to develop questionnaires designed to gauge patient distress. “We began to use these tools in clinical trials. We showed that, if we intervened with an antianxiety drug or talk therapy, we could reduce anxiety and make people less distressed,” Holland said. “Out of that has come our field of psychosocial oncology with its own evidence base.”

Over the years, Holland was recognized for her pioneering leadership with numerous awards. These included the American Cancer Society’s Medal of Honor for Clinical Research in 1994, a presidential commendation from the American Psychiatric Association in 2000 and the Adolf Meyer Award from the same organization in 2005. In 2007, she became a member of the Institute of Medicine, working on its Panel on Care of the Whole Patient. In 2015, Holland received the Pioneer Award at the Women of Influence Awards, given by the T.J. Martell Foundation, a music industry group that funds early-stage translational research aimed at finding treatments and cures for cancer.

"Jimmie was a major force in our scientific research platform for the T.J. Martell Foundation," said its CEO, Laura Heatherly. “She was a special leader, mentor and pioneer who helped many people. She will be sorely missed by us all.”

In the later years of her career, Holland was gratified to witness a shift in cancer care toward patient-centered care, with physicians and other caregivers not just encouraged, but in some cases required by industry guidelines to speak with patients about the effects of the disease on their lives.

The difference Holland made was meaningful not only to her field as a whole, but to her patients, students and colleagues.

“I, like so many of the generations she influenced, owe her my entire career,” wrote Steven Passik, PhD, a clinical psychologist and former chief fellow in the Psychiatry Service at MSK. “I am deeply saddened to hear of her passing, as I always fantasized that she would go on forever working her magic — and, of course, she will, as we are all part of her massive legacy.”

Maria Constantini-Ferrando, MD, PhD, a fertility doctor and clinical psychologist who treated young patients with cancer when she served as a fellow at MSK, described Holland as “a tremendous force who blended kindness with strength, softness with determination and always did it with dignity, integrity, and humanity. I am truly saddened by her loss.”
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