publication date: Jan. 5, 2018

An Appreciation

Jimmie Holland, founder of psycho-oncology, dies at 89

By William Breitbart

Jimmie C. Holland, internationally recognized as the founder of the field of psycho-oncology, died suddenly on Dec. 24, 2017, at the age of 89.

Dr. Holland, who was affectionately known by her first name “Jimmie”, had a profound global influence on cancer care and research; highlighting the critical importance of “whole person cancer care”, through her groundbreaking work on quality of life, screening for distress, and the psychological, social and emotional well being of cancer patients at all stages of diagnosis, treatment and survivorship.

Over a 40 year career at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Jimmie created and nurtured the field of psycho-oncology, established its clinical practice, advanced its clinical research agenda, and through her pioneering efforts, launched the careers of the leaders of a national and worldwide field who mourn her passing and continue to work in what has become a shared mission to emphasize “Care” in cancer care.

Dr. Holland was the attending psychiatrist and the Wayne E. Chapman Chair at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and professor of psychiatry, Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York. In 1977, Jimmie was appointed chief of the Psychiatry Service in the Department of Neurology at MSK, by Jerome Posner, MD, then chairman of neurology at MSK.

The Psychiatry Service at MSK was the first such clinical, research and training service established in any cancer center in the world. In 1996, Dr. Holland was named the inaugural chairwoman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center; again the first such department created in any cancer center in the U.S. and the world.

Dr. Holland founded the American Psychosocial Oncology Society in 1986, and founded the International Psycho-oncology Society (IPOS) in 1984. Over 25 years ago, Jimmie founded and co-edited, the international journal Psycho-Oncology.

Dr. Holland edited the first major textbooks of Psycho-oncology and recently edited the 3rd edition of the textbook “Psycho-oncology” in 2015. Jimmie co- wrote two well received books for the public: “The Human Side of Cancer”, and “Lighter as We Go: Virtues, Character Strengths, and Aging”; the latter reflecting her interests in Geriatric Oncology as she approached her 90th birthday.

Dr. Holland was born in the small farming community of Nevada, Texas in 1928. She credits the local family physician in that community with her interest in medicine and caring for those who were suffering. Jimmie was 1 of only 3 women in her class at Baylor College of Medicine.

In 1956 Jimmie married the renowned oncology pioneer James Holland, MD, who was then chief of medicine at Roswell Park in Buffalo. Jimmie recently described her early collaborations with James in a video interview with IPOS. “I started the Special Medical Clinic to provide psychiatric care to cancer patients. They didn’t balk at being seen by a psychiatrist because it was, after all, special.”

In the early days of collaborative oncology group research, Jimmie would chide James and complain that cancer patients were asked every conceivable question about their physical functioning, but no one ever asked them “how do you feel emotionally?” Jimmie subsequently chaired the CALGB Quality of Life Committee for many years, pioneering the inclusion of psychological and emotional well being patient reported outcomes in quality of life measures and as a component of clinical outcomes in clinical trials.

At MSK, Dr. Holland conducted ground breaking clinical research examining the course and treatment of anxiety in cancer patients, examining the relationship of depression to pancreatic cancer and most significant demonstrating the utility of screening for distress in cancer patients.

As chair of the National Cancer Center Network Distress Management Guidelines since 1997, Jimmie’s advocacy work led to the NCCN Distress Screening Guidelines being adopted in all NCI designated Cancer Centers. “Screening for Distress” became a practice that was a requirement for accreditation of cancer centers by the American College of Surgeons. Psycho-oncology programs became mandatory in all NCI-designated cancer centers.

In addition to her pioneering research at MSK, Dr. Holland established the largest Clinical and Research Training Post-doctoral Training Fellowship Programs for Psychiatrists and Psychologists in the world.  The clinical programs and innovations created at MSK over the past 40 years helped establish Jimmie’s department as the “Center of Excellence” in psycho-oncology worldwide.

Dr. Holland has received many awards recognizing her achievements over the course of her career.  There are too many to list , however her awards include: The Medal of Honor for Clinical Research from the American Cancer Society, The Clinical Research Award from the American Association of Community Cancer Centers, The American Association for Cancer Research Joseph H. Burchenal Clinical Research Award, The Marie Curie Award from the Government of France, the Margaret L. Kripke Legend Award for contributions to the advancement of women in cancer medicine and cancer science from the MD Anderson Cancer Center, The T J Martell Foundation 2015 Women of Influence Award, and the Distinguished Alumnus Award from Baylor College of Medicine in 2016.

Dr. Holland stepped down as chairman of the MSK Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in 2003, however she kept working full time, seeing patients, conducting research, training and supervising fellows, traveling the world lecturing and teaching, establishing a Geriatric Psycho-oncology Program in the department and committing her attention and energies to bring psycho-oncology to Africa through her work with the African Organization for Cancer Research & Training in Cancer (AORTIC).

Jimmie was seeing patients up until two days before her death. We’ve lost cancer pioneer, a remarkable woman, a once in a generation influencer. Her death is a profound loss for all of oncology.


The author is the Jimmie C. Holland Chair in Psychiatric Oncology and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Copyright (c) 2018 The Cancer Letter Inc.