Money & Careers

Dr. Jimmie Holland, Psycho-Oncologist: A Woman Who’s Made a Difference

Doctors Jimmie Holland and Mindy Greenstein talk about the art of traveling light over the years.

Psycho-oncology, the doctor explains, is divided into two parts: in the first—clinical—part, psycho-oncologists study the impact of cancer on patients, on their families, and on the oncologists and their teams.

The other part of psycho-oncology involves looking at what people do to change their risk of cancer. What are the behaviors we indulge in (like smoking, sexual behavior, sun exposure) that make us more vulnerable to cancer?

“The tradition in cancer research was that patients’ self-report of symptoms was unreliable and could not be used in research. It was necessary for us to develop valid and reliable measures of subjective feelings, like pain, anxiety, depression. Today, these aspects are a part of patient-reported outcomes in all clinical trials. With valid tools, we had the opportunity to develop an evidence base for psychosocial and pharmacologic interventions.”

She explains how psycho-oncology works: “We do counseling in the hospital when the acutely ill patient wants it. After they go home, patients will come into our counseling center. I do probably 15 to 20 hours a week talking with patients and helping them cope with whatever problems they have. Sometimes I see them with their spouse, their child.

“We have ended up with a number of therapies that clearly help and that have good value. We sometimes use a combination of psychotherapy and a medication to relieve the symptoms of depression, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, fatigue. Supportive therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy are very effective. It’s good to stay in the here and now: ‘Let’s go over your symptoms, let’s go over why you’re distressed and give you some homework to help you deal with that.’

“Now we can tell the field, ‘This works.’ We know it works because we’ve done the research.”

In therapy, the gold standard is one-on-one, face-to-face counseling, but Dr. Holland maintains that “groups are good; telephone counseling works quite well; we see a lot of older people, and it isn’t easy for them to get in, so we do telephone therapy with older folks. Online support programs are developing rapidly.”

Back in the fifties, Jimmie Holland was one of the few women doctors whom patients and visitors could spot in a hospital corridor. Asked how she feels about the surge of women into the field, she declares, “It’s been wonderful. By and large, women are better at giving emotional support than men are. There’s been some evidence that women, as a group, communicate better than male doctors. The influx of women in the last 40 to 45 years has been quite remarkable. I think women contribute well to what we call patient-centered care; the whole idea is, What are the patient’s needs? For a long time, hospitals were built around the staff and the doctors’ needs. Well, that’s changed. I think we’re much more concerned about the emotional side of things, comfort, handling side effects of treatments that are undesirable. We’re much better at all those things today, and I think women have contributed to that for sure in medicine.”

Next page: On aging, character strengths, and wisdom

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  • Alice Fixx July 18, 2016 at 6:11 pm

    Dr. Jimmie Holland is a saint, and a brilliant one at that. I have introduced her to scores of my friends and not a one has not been dazzled by her. Her compassion, generosity and intelligence are unrivaled. She has made an immeasurable difference in the world.

  • Deborah Harkins March 7, 2016 at 6:13 pm

    Hello, Peter

    I will send your nice note to Dr. Holland!


    Deborah Harkins

  • Peter A. Sackett March 6, 2016 at 8:10 pm

    I hope Dr. Holland sees this! We were neighbors of the Holland family way back when they lived in Buffalo. They lived three houses down from us. We were very sad when Jim and Jimmie moved to NYC..along with their children (I hope I get this right!1) Steven, Peter, David, Sally…and I believe one more – I think it was Mary.
    Regardless, we all knew that Dr. Holland Dr. Holland were very special people; brilliant intellect along with that special ability to care for their patients.
    I have never forgotten the Holland Family and the wonderful things Jim and Jimmie taught me. My dad still lives 3 houses from the Hollands!! Peter A. Sackett, Cleveland OH.

  • audia Harkins April 12, 2015 at 12:33 pm

    Dr. Holland is an amazing woman and human being. How wonderful that she was instrumental in creating the field of psycho-oncology. Dr. Holland has dedicated her professional career in research and study for the good of those with cancer, and at 86 continues her work. Terrific!

  • toni myers April 9, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    Brilliant. Exciting to read about this remarkable woman and the necessary addition to cancer research and practice she created. I plan to look up how many we have in Seattle. Of all the side effects of cancer,
    the emotional one is the least treated.

  • Liz Robbins April 9, 2015 at 1:12 pm

    What a superb piece, Deborah. Dr. Holland is truly inspirational, and her trail-blazing efforts are remarkable.

  • Wendl April 9, 2015 at 12:30 pm

    Thank you. Excellent article about an outstanding woman and physician. We need more doctors with similar philosophy and practices.