On the Frontier of Cancer Care: Holland Helped Pioneer Psychosocial Treatment

Beth Fand Incollingo @fandincollingo
Published: Friday, Jul 19, 2013
“There’s a myth that you have to be positive to fight cancer,” she said. “I call it the tyranny of positive thinking. There’s no such thing as making cancer worse if you’re depressed. We just want patients to say when they are distressed and need help.”

Her efforts to spread that message haven’t slowed, despite her many years in the field. Holland works a 12-hour day, devoting about a quarter of her time to seeing patients.

Her only nod to her age is her interest in working with people of her generation.

“Because I’m older, I see a lot of older people,” Holland said. “We have a geriatric program, called 65+, to help older patients get through their cancer treatment, which can be hard for them because many are also facing a number of problems associated with aging.”

Similarly, Holland’s research within MSKCC’s Psychotherapy Laboratory, and via clinical trials, focuses on psychotherapy for elderly patients with cancer.

She also finds time to supervise fellows in psychology and psychiatry, training them in the psychological care of patients with cancer, and providing them with the history of the evolution of the field.

She wants her students to understand that “you have to treat the whole person, not just the tumor,” she said. “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.’”

Passionate From the Start

Holland grew up an only child on a cotton farm near Dallas, Texas, when the area was still countryside.

She had an ordinary Texas life and an ordinary Texas name⎯“girls get boys’ names and boys get girls’ names,” Holland said⎯but unusual aspirations.

She planned to become a nurse, until she realized that women could be doctors.

“There weren’t many around,” Holland recalled. “There was a woman doctor in Dallas that I knew by her reputation, although I didn’t know her well. But I began to realize it was possible.”

Holland was given a lot of encouragement, and went on to earn her BA at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and her MD at Baylor University School of Medicine in Houston.

“My parents were tremendously supportive and were right there to help me,” she recalled. “They were both farm folk, but they were wonderful in their idea that their daughter should have better than they had, and they made sure I did. They made sacrifices and borrowed money to send me. By my second and third years I had gotten a scholarship, but that wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t worked hard and the country bank hadn’t lent them the money.”

Holland met with acceptance in medical school, even though she was one of only three women in the class that started in 1948, competing with returning World War II veterans for the opportunity to attend.

“I had a minimal amount of problems,” she said. “I found that, if indeed people recognized that I was working hard, they wanted to help me. I didn’t feel a lot of that kind of bias that you hear about.”

Holland met her husband, who then worked at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, when she went to visit a woman surgeon colleague there. A year later, they married, and she moved to Buffalo.

Her husband had a daughter, and together the couple had five more children; now, they have 10 grandchildren.

But even while raising her family, Holland found time to establish a place for herself as a leader in her field. “I worked only part time when the children were small, so it was a more sequential career than most young women today, who do both at the same time. Even so, I could not have done it without the help of my supportive husband,” she said.

Finding Her Way

From 1956 through 1973, Holland moved up the ladder from clinical instructor to 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. Her husband consulted with the Russian Cancer Institute, and 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.

World Oncology Leaders Reunion

Photo by © ASCO/Scott Morgan 2012

Jimmie C. Holland, MD, attends the World Oncology Leaders Reunion during the American Society of Clinical Oncology Annual Meeting in Chicago, Illinois, in 2012. In photo, from left, are Gabriel N. Hortobagyi, MD, of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center; Charles M. Balch, MD, of UT Southwestern Cancer Center; and Holland’s husband, James F. Holland, MD, of Mount Sinai Medical Center.

Back in the United States, she spent four years at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Hospital, in the Bronx, New York, where she rose to the rank of associate professor. With the acceptance of the job of chief of the first Psychiatry Service at MSKCC in 1977, she became a professor at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City. This began the building of the psychosocial care program at MSKCC, which has had national and international ripple effects on the care of patients with cancer.

It’s all been a wonderful journey for Holland, who is proud to have helped develop a vital area of cancer care, and happy to have been “in the right place at the right time.”

“I’ve been blessed with a wonderful husband, kids, and colleagues who worked hard with me,” she said, “and I’ve been able to combine my personal and professional lives in a very pleasant way that’s made for a very satisfying life. I could not ask for better at 85.”

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