Dr. Jimmie Holland has been practicing psycho-oncology at Sloane Kettering Memorial Hospital since 1977. She spoke about the talk she will be giving at a luncheon for cancer survivors at Southampton Hospital this weekend, and how the field has evolved in the past 40 years. Photo courtesy of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
What exactly is psycho-oncology?
Cancer care, despite the fact that it’s very frightening disease, never had psychiatric parameters before. We know how hard cancer is to deal with. It often means death to people even though they know people very often get cured. The psychological impact is tremendous. That’s what I’ve been looking at since 1977 when Sloane Kettering opened its psychiatric service. That mushroomed and now every hospital has some sort of support for cancer patients. People do things like art therapy and such.
In 40 years there’s been enormous change in how cancer is treated, there’s much less fear now. We have 14 million cancer survivors in this country, which is incredible. But the problems don’t end when you go into remission. People have a lot of fear about recurrence, and about the potential side effects of drugs and treatments.
I’m also going to be talking with another person, Mindy Greenstein, who’s also a cancer psychologist. We’ve written a book together on the older cancer survivors, because two thirds of all the survivors are 65 or older. It’s called “Lighter As We Go,” and the bookstore in Sag Harbor will be selling it.
What are some of the aspects of the psychiatry of cancer that the greater public should be aware of?
Anybody who’s dealt with cancer realizes how frightening is. We call it a family disease, because it’s not just one person: The spouse is worried, the children are frightened. It was so scary, we never used use the word cancer. We skirted around the word. Most of those fears have diminished for other diseases. When you think about tuberculosis, we used to have the same fears until we came up with a cure. We did the same thing about AIDS and HIV, now we know more about it, so we’re not so afraid of it. What people need to know, overall, is the fact we need to treat all diseases, it’s not a death sentence. Do not be so frightened that you lose perspective. This is a big celebration of cancer survivor day, this year. When you think about it, you read a lot about cancer today and about new treatements, targeting specific problems; we can more focus on a tumor problem, tumor cell, and we can better individualize care.
How did you become involved in the field?
My husband is an oncologist, and I am, and have always been, a psychiatrist and had always been interested in studying how people deal with crises, and how they have the strength to persevere, and how they can find strength within their personality. When we work with people we try to enhance the things inside them that make them strong. I thought to myself, if I want to study people’s reactions, this is the place to do. It’s a disease that you can really study the impact of the personal strength, and it’s a disease that affects everyone, children, adults, the elderly. It’s turned out to be extremely interesting for me
In your work have you ever seen that a positive attitude can actually have a positive effect on physical wellbeing?
That’s always a question: Can you cure your disease by your mental attitude? It’s not a likely event, but it is true that if you’re overwhelmed and you don’t come in for your treatments, then you indeed have altered your outcome. But there’s nothing that we know so far about the immune system that says you have to be positive to cure cancer, I don’t think that’s true at all, but it’s better to have a positive attitude.