Tribute to Jimmie Holland, MD
The cancer community lost a pioneer in psychosocial oncology December 24, 2017 when Dr. Jimmie Holland, died suddenly at her home in Scarsdale, N.Y. She was 89 years old. Dr. Holland was the founder of psycho-oncology (later called psychosocial oncology), an interdisciplinary field examines the interactions of lifestyle, psychology, and the social aspects of the cancer experience.
Dr. Holland was born Jimmie Coker April 9, 1928, in Forney, Tex., a hamlet of about 100 people, and after graduating from Baylor in three years, she enrolled in Baylor's medical college as one of three women in a class of 85.
Dr. Holland gravitated toward psychiatry partly because she saw her husband’s oncology colleagues focusing solely on medical treatment and neglecting to support patients emotionally, despite their trauma in facing a very scary disease with an unpredictable prognosis.
After nearly two decades of oncology experience at prominent US cancer centers, Dr. Holland joined Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in 1977 and, with several colleagues, established a division of psychiatry there. She was chief of the psychiatry service until 1996 and chairwoman of the department of psychiatry until 2003. She became the first woman to head a clinical department at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and was credited with creating the first full-time psychiatry service in a major cancer hospital.
Dr. Carolyn Messner, Director of Education and Training at CancerCare, expresses gratitude for Dr. Holland’s mentorship and her influence on CancerCare’s support services. “I first heard Dr. Holland speak at a conference at MSK when I started working at CancerCare in 1976,” says Dr. Messner. “At that time, she focused on her research and clinical practice in psycho-oncology. She founded this field and her work was so relevant to our clinical interventions at CancerCare. Later I presented my dissertation findings at an International Psycho-Oncology Symposium (IPOS) in London, England. Dr. Holland was the moderator of this workshop and from then on Jimmie became my quiet and inspirational mentor. For me and so many whom Jimmie took under her wing, we are grateful to have known Dr. Holland, for her founding psycho-oncology in the US and globally, her inspiration and great interest in each of us and our work.”
She went on to win countless prestigious medical and humanitarian awards including the Lasker Award in 1972, the ACS's Medal of Honor for Clinical Research in 1994, election as a fellow to both the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences in 1995, and receiving the American Psychiatric Association's Presidential Commendation in 2000. Her research and publications have helped to explain the psychosocial complexities that patients and families face when cancer is diagnosed, as well as establish guidelines to ensure that cancer care providers address patients’ emotional and quality of life concerns.
Dr. Holland urged doctors to screen for emotional distress as a vital sign, just as they do for temperature, pulse, respiration, blood pressure and pain. Physiological symptoms, she said, could often be relieved by antidepressants, anxiety medicine, meditation and other treatments. Thus, she and colleagues developed the Distress Thermometer, now widely used by oncology providers to assess patients’ state of mind while in treatment.
Win Boerckel, Director of Social Services for CancerCare’s Long Island office, remembers connecting with Dr. Holland when he was asked to interview her for a WebMD video project. “She and I quickly realized that the question and answer format suggested was not working, so we cut out the questions and just had a chat. With cameras rolling, she and I had the most delightful conversation about her work, her history, raising a large family, and a bunch of other topics that showed her humanity and caring for others through her work and life.
Richard Dickens, Director of Client Advocacy at CancerCare recalls the lasting impact of Dr. Holland had on his own career. “As for me, I’d long admired Dr. Holland and dreamed of meeting her one day. So I was surprised when in 2003 she requested that I be assigned to supervise a respected colleague of hers who was pursuing an MSW degree. I still have that email 16 years later. I cannot think of a more affirming event in my early career than to be recommended by Jimmie Holland.”
CancerCare’s Chief Strategy and Alliance Officer, Ellen Sonet, also has many fond memories of Dr. Holland: “As the newly minted and first Vice President of Marketing at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, in 1996, my agenda was to meet and chat with all 37 service chiefs. My conversation with Jimmie Holland was distinct in its focus on the human experience of cancer patients. She helped me appreciate the trauma of a new diagnosis, the disruption to families, the yearning for a new normal that preserved quality of life. Now that ‘patient centric care’is the gold standard in oncology, we can all appreciate that her passion was not only the essence of empathy, but was prescient in its impact on best practices in caring for people with cancer. I'm very grateful to her in so many ways and will always feel blessed by the relationship we had.”
Patricia Goldsmith, CancerCare CEO captured the sentiments of all CancerCare staff when she said, “The world has lost not only a legend, but someone whose legacy will never be replaced.”