How Are Your Emotions Today? Honoring a Pioneer in Cancer Care

March 23, 2018
Heather Millar
Heather Millar
Heather Millar

San Francisco-based Heather Millar is a breast cancer survivor. A journalist for more than 25 years, she has covered health care and science for many national magazines and websites.

If an oncologist, infusion center nurse or any member of your medical team has asked you a question like that recently, you can thank Dr. Jimmie Holland, a pioneering psychiatrist who died Dec. 24 at the age of 89.

“How are your emotions today?”

If an oncologist, infusion center nurse or any member of your medical team has asked you a question like that recently, you can thank Dr. Jimmie Holland, a pioneering psychiatrist who died Dec. 24 at the age of 89.

Holland rose from a rural Texas childhood to be the founder of the first psychiatry service in a major cancer hospital, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan.

According to her obituary published in the New York Times, she got the idea in the 1970s while talking to her husband, James F. Holland, about his oncology practice. She kept asking, "How does your patient feel?" Again and again, her husband said he didn't know. When she returned to full-time work after a break to raise their six children, Holland basically built the field of psycho-oncology, which is the study of how cancer patients and survivors cope with their experience of the disease.

She asked questions like this: Does it add an extra burden to tell cancer patients that they should always cultivate a "positive attitude"? How does losing a breast or a testicle to cancer affect a person's body image? How do people who survive cancer in childhood fare during the rest of their lives? How does a cancer diagnosis affect the loved ones of a patient? Is it normal for survivors of cancer to struggle with anxiety? How do we tell the difference between sadness and clinical depression in a cancer patient? How does cancer affect a couple's sexual life?

Today, when so many of us track our every mood on social media, it may come as a surprise that 40 years ago, nobody paid much attention to cancer patients' feelings. The prognosis back then was often grim. Medical specialists focused on fighting the disease, rather than addressing patient feelings. And if someone survived, then they were just lucky to be alive, the common attitude held.

People would often say things like, "You're alive, be grateful for that, and don't whine about being depressed.”

Holland made the point that having cancer is bad enough, adding the exhortation to "think positive" all the time just added another burden to the patient.

That may sound obvious to anyone who's experienced cancer treatment, but it was not obvious to medical centers just a couple decades ago. Now, just about every major cancer center has a team that deals with the psychosocial challenges of cancer.

Thanks, Jimmie Holland. Because of your work, my oncology team encouraged me to exercise, to meditate, to be honest about my feelings, to seek support for my husband and daughter. All of that helped a little bit.

Because of your work, my oncologist didn't bat an eye when I asked for an antidepressant when I hit a crushing period of the blues just after treatment.

Because of your work, my nurse practitioner took me seriously when I complained of anxiety a couple years later.

Of course, cancer patients always had feelings. But now, thanks to the new field of psycho-oncology, those feelings get noticed. We all owe Dr. Jimmie Holland a debt of gratitude for that.


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