Jimmie C. Holland, MD, a founder of the field of psycho-oncology, was a pioneer of compassion. She elevated this branch of psychiatry, dedicated to oncology patients, to a level of remarkable, worldwide recognition and respect. Born in a small East Texas town in 1928, Jimmie Holland moved through life with grace, experiencing her share of hardship as well as moments of exultation. She worked with the earliest pioneers in psycho-oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital and raised a beautiful family with James F. Holland, MD, a founding father of chemotherapy.
The question that gave shape to her life and her career was “how do we make life better for patients with cancer?” Jimmie was thrilled to see how far oncology has come in answering that question over her lifetime but felt that there was much work still to be done, especially in understanding the implications of cancer science for what she called the “human side of cancer.” Working as a powerful and effective clinician and researcher up until the very end, she passed away on Christmas Eve of 2017, surrounded by her family.
Jimmie Holland was tireless in her dedication to her patients and to her field. She approached her work with the combination of a resolve rarely witnessed and unparalleled love and compassion for her patients and colleagues alike. Her approach was elegant and direct: care for each patient—really show them love. This was aptly expressed by her favorite quote: “The secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient.” She appreciated a straightforward and commonsense approach to caregiving and cherished Yogi Berra’s quotes—for example, “You can observe a lot by watching.” Closeness to patients’ lives is what she believed made sense when caring for patients with cancer. In psychiatry, there is no scalpel or laboratory data to hide behind. Jimmie taught us how to be present and give of ourselves when patients need us the most, without losing ourselves in the process.
She also reminded us that life is fun and told us that we might as well make the most of this go-round. She was an avid reader and gardener, and an even more avid liver and lover of life. In the same way that she cared for her patients, she cared for her colleagues and wanted them to succeed and carry the torch for the goal of making life better for patients with cancer. She was a keeper of tradition, and loved synthesizing new knowledge with the wisdom of her teachers (her mentor, Avery Weisman, MD, for example, who, coincidentally, also just passed away in 2017). Her great collaborative spirit brought the important work of psychologists and social scientists into the fields of psychiatry and oncology.
Countless clinicians and scientists have assimilated Jimmie’s passion for helping patients with cancer by using patient-centered science. She was an early champion of what are now called “patient-reported outcomes.” She reminded us that patients began to benefit from symptom management science only after earlier pioneers legitimized the use of the patient self-report in the 1970s, which was not too long ago.
Jimmie Holland’s accomplishments are legendary. She established the first department of psychiatry within a dedicated cancer hospital—Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center—which has gone on to become the largest and most respected training and research program in psycho-oncology in the world. She founded the American Psychosocial Oncology Society in 1980 and co-founded the International Psycho-Oncology Society in 1984. She was instrumental in creating a distress screening tool endorsed by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN)—the Distress Thermometer and Problem List. She helped persuade the American Cancer Society and other oncology societies to incorporate a psychosocial agenda, and advocated strongly for the formation of psychological screening guidelines, which have since been adopted by the American Society of Clinical Oncology and the NCCN. She has received numerous awards and accolades, including being elected a Fellow of the Institute of Medicine in 1995. She produced the first textbook on psycho-oncology and has been its senior editor over three editions, and she was co–editor-in-chief of the journal Psycho-Oncology.
Her later work began to focus on geriatrics, and she penned one of the most delightful reads on aging, Lighter as We Go, an authentically transcendent look at what it means to age, and one that considers not only what is lost but also how much is gained from this universal but uniquely personal human experience.
Jimmie was my beloved mentor and friend. While it breaks my heart to know that I won’t get to see this manuscript marked up with her annotations (which would frequently continue onto the back of the page), I am comforted to know that her contributions to oncology and psychiatry are immortal. Her memory will be kept alive by everyone who has been fortunate enough to have known her in person and by countless more who will know her through her work and writings. Her spirit lives on in all of us whose goal it is to alleviate the suffering of our fellow human beings who are facing cancer.
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5. Holland JC, Bultz BD, National Comprehensive Cancer Network. The NCCN guideline for distress management: a case for making distress the sixth vital sign. J Natl Compr Canc Netw. 2007;5:3-7.
6. Andersen BL, DeRubeis RJ, Berman BS, et al. Screening, assessment, and care of anxiety and depressive symptoms in adults with cancer: an American Society of Clinical Oncology guideline adaptation. J Clin Oncol. 2014;32:1605-19.
7. Greenstein M, Holland J. Lighter as we go. New York: Oxford University Press; 2014.