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JCO's Cancer Stories: The Art of Oncology podcast series consists of author interviews and readings of the section’s content. This platform provides authors with the opportunity to comment on their work, offers better accessibility for readers, and stimulates moreconversations. Art of Oncology publishes personal essays, reflections, and opinions in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, giving our readers a chance to reflect on important aspects of practice and help shape our professional discourse. We hope you enjoy listening to these thought-provoking stories.


Dr. Lidia Schapira

Cancer Stories is hosted by Dr. Lidia Schapira, MD, FASCO.

Dr. Schapira is the Associate editor for JCO’s Art of Oncology. She is a Professor of Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine where she serves as the Director of the Cancer Survivorship Program. 

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The purpose of this podcast is to educate and to inform. This is not a substitute for professional medical care and is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of individual conditions. Guests on this podcast express their own opinions, experience, and conclusions. Guests' statements on the podcast do not express the opinions of ASCO. The mention of any product, service, organization, activity, or therapy should not be construed as an ASCO endorsement.

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Sep 14, 2021

Dr. Hayes interviews Dr. Breitbart on his research addressing psychiatric, psychological and existential adjustment as well as symptom control in advanced cancer.

Dr. Daniel F. Hayes is the Stuart B. Padnos Professor of Breast Cancer Research at the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center. Dr. Hayes’ research interests are in the field of experimental therapeutics and cancer biomarkers, especially in breast cancer. He has served as chair of the SWOG Breast Cancer Translational Medicine Committee, and he was an inaugural member and chaired the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Tumor Marker Guidelines Committee. Dr. Hayes served on the ASCO Board of Directors, and served a 3 year term as President of ASCO from 2016-2018.


SPEAKER: The purpose of this podcast is to educate and to inform. This is not a substitute for professional medical care and is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of individual conditions. Guests on this podcast express their own opinions, experience, and conclusions. The mention of any product, service, organization, activity, or therapy should not be construed as an ASCO endorsement.


DANIEL HAYES: Welcome to JCO's Cancer Stories-- The Art of Oncology, brought to you by the ASCO Podcast Network, a collection of nine programs covering a range of educational and scientific content, and offering enriching insights into the world of cancer care. You can find all of their shows, including this one, at

We have a special treat today in our podcast series in that I have the opportunity to interview Dr. William Breitbart. Dr. Breitbart is the Jimmie Holland Chair of Oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering and the Professor and Vice Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the Weill Cornell Medical College. And as far as I can see, Dr. Breitbart, you've never left New York City. But I will get the background. And you can tell us if you took a vacation or something one time outside the city.

Dr. Breitbart grew up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He went to Brooklyn College, graduated in 1973, then medical school at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. And then he did his residency in internal medicine at the Bronx Hospital and trained basically at Memorial Sloan Kettering. Joined the faculty there, and has been on the faculty ever since.

He has a number of accomplishments, too many for me to really review it carefully. But he's been president of the International Psycho-Oncology Society and received their Sutherland Lifetime Achievement Award. He's been president of the Academy of Psychosomatic Medicine and received their Hackett Lifetime Achievement Award.

And on a personal basis, my brother was also the president of the Academy of Psychosomatic Medicine. So I'm very proud of my brother and equally proud of Dr. Breitbart. He really is responsible for a number of enormous steps forward in our field, including psychotherapeutic approaches for palliative care of patients with terminal illnesses, especially cancer.

He has been involved with what I saw you call, Dr. Breitbart, "hastened to death." I had learned it as assisted suicide. I'm going to ask you a question about that. I'm interested in your comments. And more recently, meaning-centered psychotherapy for the terminally ill And we'll talk more about that, too.

So in addition, I have asked Dr. Breitbart if he would also give us insights into Dr. Jimmie Holland's life and her career. Sadly, she passed away before we had an opportunity to chat with her. She was one of my favorite people in the whole world. And I think everybody that knew here said the same thing. So we'll get some insights for those of you who didn't know Dr. Holland from this call as well.

Before we start, Dr. Breitbart wants to declare that he's received honoraria from Novartis and has a consulting or advisory role with Novartis. Dr. Breitbart, welcome to our program today.

WILLIAM BREITBART: Thank you Dr. Hayes, pleasure to be here. Can I make just one slight correction? I actually trained in both internal medicine and psychiatry at the Bronx Municipal Hospital, which is the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation's Public Hospital. So I trained in both psychiatry and internal medicine, jumping back and forth between the two, out of a state of confusion.

And then I landed in Dr. Holland's fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering for a variety of reasons. The main reason was though that I had developed a thyroid cancer when I was a medical resident in the middle of my training. And then I went back to finish up more of my psychiatry residency training, I became the liaison to the Oncology Clinic at Jacobi Hospital, the Bronx Municipal Hospital.

I did consultations for cancer patients. I ran groups for cancer patients and also ran groups for the oncologists and oncology nurses. And I was trying to educate myself on the subject of psycho-oncology or psychiatric oncology. It actually hadn't been named yet in those days. And the only literature I could find were papers written in oncology journals by Dr. Julie Holland. And so that's where I knew where I needed to go to become more expert in this area.

That's the most superficial version of how I ended up at Memorial Sloan Kettering. I could tell you the more interesting version if you're interested.

DANIEL HAYES: Well, actually, what you just covered was my first question. I was going to say this is about you, not about me. But my brother also did training in internal medicine and decided to go in psychiatry, and ended up in psychiatry liaison. And I think that's what makes you two, and others like you, powerful, is that if you go to France and you don't speak French, you're not going to be listened to. And if you come to a bunch of oncologists, and you don't speak internal medicine or oncology, we're not going to listen to you.

And I think clearly to me, Jimmie Holland always knew what I did. And I think you have the same strength. I'd love to hear how you actually got involved with her. Yes. Please begin.

WILLIAM BREITBART: I agree with you actually about that comment. It's very helpful to have had the training in both medicine and psychiatry. And, in fact, we've trained a few fellows who've done oncology fellowships and then done our-- and a psychiatry residency and then done our psycho-oncology fellowship as well.

But the real story of how I ended up in this field starts in childhood, where a lot of stories start. But my parents were both Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe, from Poland in particular. When the war broke out, my mother was 14 years old and my father was 17 years old.

And my father's family were all killed. But he ended up surviving, hiding in the woods. And he became-- Polish forest-- and he became part of a partisan fighter group, lived in the Polish forest. And one day he went looking for food and broke into this farmhouse. And as it turned out, my mother and her parents were being hidden by a Catholic woman, who hid them in a hole underneath the stove in her barn.

And my father broke into this farmhouse and discovered my mother and my maternal grandparents. It turned out they were related. They were second cousins.

My father said, you can't stay here. It's not safe. You should come into the woods with me and 150 other people. My grandparents were too afraid to go. But they let my mother go. So at the tender age of 14 and 17, my parents were hiding in the Polish forest, where they lived for about three years, hiding from the Nazis, and then Ukrainians, and all sorts of people who were interested in killing Jews.

And they finally, after the war, crossed over to Germany. They actually found my grandparents alive. And they crossed over the border to Germany, went into this displaced persons' camp outside of Munich and got married there. And then came to the Lower East Side in late 1949, early 1950.

And I was born several years later. And I grew up in this home on the Lower East Side, as you pointed out. And I grew up in a home where the Holocaust also lived. I lived in this home where the Holocaust was in every room-- didn't have a room of its own. It was in all the rooms, on all the walls-- and all the pictures that had been saved of my family, that had perished, on all the religious articles that might have been saved, et cetera.

So I grew up in this environment where I understood at a very early age, maybe four or five years old, that death and suffering were very real. And that we all lived in this space between life and death. My mother would ask me every morning-- when she gave me breakfast, she would ask me the question, why am I here?

And the full question really was, why am I here and everyone else is dead? Basically, what evolved out of this was the transmission of this responsibility or I guess a burden-- for me, it was an inspiration-- for me to accomplish something of such significance and impact-- in the world of suffering in particular-- in the arena of people who suffer in the face of death. And it's going to be up to me to achieve something of such significance that my parents would be able to-- my mother would be able to turn around and say, well you see we had to survive because if I hadn't survived, there wouldn't be Bill Breitbart in the world.


So that was the mission. That was the burden. That was the inspiration. And I wasn't fully cognizant of it. But I was traveling this journey-- this route that took me through college, and loving science and poetry, ending up in medical school, thinking I'd be a psychiatrist, but then falling in love with medicine. Loving both psychiatry and medicine.

What I realized what fascinated-- what fascinated me was how a human being can live a mortal, finite life. How do you-- as a person who develops a life-threatening illness, how do you continue to live? How do you have the strength, the courage, to keep on living? And what gives you purpose and meaning?

And so I got myself to Sloan Kettering by reading the work of Dr. Jimmie Holland and Dr. Massie. And I found myself at Memorial. I put myself in a place, with a mentor-- a group of mentors-- a place where I would breathe the same air of my patients, who were breathing the air of a human being confronting death, confronting the real prospect death being closer than-- closer than it was farther away. So that's how I ended up at Memorial. That's the real story.

And I went to Sloan Kettering to do a fellowship, just to become a good clinician. I wanted to be a clinician. I never had the expectation of being a clinical researcher or an academician. I never had the ambition or aspiration to be an academic, a teacher, an advocate; never thought to be a professor of anything. I never thought I'd write books, or scientific articles, or become president of organizations, et cetera.

All that happened because of my exposure to Jimmie. And my interest in research ended up being a result of one conversation that I had as a fellow. Dr. Holland, who was supposed to be my supervisor-- she's deceased now-- she was my inpatient supervisor-- my outpatient, inpatient supervisor. So we made rounds one day, which was very rare. But we made rounds one day. And I was the liaison.

I was very fortunate enough to be the liaison to the Neuro-Oncology Unit and to the Pain Service at Memorial, which were both within the Department of Neurology. When Dr. Holland was recruited to Memorial Sloan Kettering in 1977, it was by the chair of the Department of Neurology, Dr. Jerome Posner-- Jerry Posner-- who recruited both Jimmie to be the Chief of the Psychiatry Service and he recruited Kathy Foley to be the Chief of the Pain Service.

So I basically held on to these two meteoroids. Jimmie Holland and Kathy Foley, those are the two people who helped-- helped pull me along the road. So on the Neuro-Oncology Unit, I had done a consult on patient with brain tumors, on high-dose steroids. And he had a severe psychosis.

And I asked Dr. Holland, why is it that these patients on steroids develop these neuropsychiatric syndromes? They develop depressions. And they can get delirious, and psychotic, and manic. And this was the advice that my mentor gave me-- Dr. Holland gave me-- which turned me into a scientist.

And her response was, well, gee, Bill-- in her Texas twang-- well, gee, Bill, I really don't know. I really don't know. I guess you'll just have to go figure that one out yourself.


And that's what I ended up doing. I then pursued figuring it out myself. And that's what I did for the next 30 years, trying to figure out clinical problems-- when the AIDS epidemic exploded. My first research study was to study looking at patients with epidural spinal cord compression, those who had high grade versus lower grade compression. One group got high-dose steroids, the other didn't. And I did a comparison study of psychiatric syndromes in both populations.

I was at Memorial when the AIDS epidemic exploded. And so I started to do studies of delirium. I did the first double-blind randomized controlled trial of neuroleptics for the treatment of delirium in the AIDS population because they all got demented and delirious.

I did the first studies of pain in HIV. I did the first studies of desire for hastened death in patients with advanced AIDS and in patients with advanced cancer. And then I started to do a lot more work in inflammation and depression in pancreatic cancer patients.

And eventually, everything kind of culminated. As I evolved from being a psychiatric oncologist to a psychiatric oncologist and palliative care clinician, that kind of bridged the two worlds of psychopharmacology and palliative care. And I started really looking at issues of desire for hastened death and the loss of meaning. And then developed interventions for meaning, which we call meaning-centered psychotherapy, which has been a real advance I think in our field.

DANIEL HAYES: You must have been Dr. Holland's first trainee at Memorial.

WILLIAM BREITBART: Well, her story-- basically, she was this young country girl in Nevada, Texas. She grew up on a farm, a cotton farm apparently. She was most influenced by the country doctor who would visit when people were ill. And when he passed away, he gave her a set of medical books, which inspired her.

And she told her family, I think I want to be a doctor. And they said, well, gee, that sounds unreasonable, Jimmie. But whatever you feel like doing, go ahead.

She ended up going to Baylor. And I think she was one of only three women in medical school class at Baylor. She started her residency I think at Baylor as well.

And then eventually, she got married. Her first husband died tragically. I believe it was a suicide, which I think got interested in psychiatry.

She ended up, I think, doing her residency at-- finishing her residency at MGH, along with Tom Hackett, people like that. And somewhere along that route, that's where she met James Holland. So James and Jimmie were, as you say, a power couple.

James told me that Jimmie was his secret weapon, his secret power. But Jimmie told me the exact same thing about James. I think they fed off each other in terms of creativity and ideas.

So when James moved to Roswell Park, I guess, Jimmie started a special clinic. And she called it "special" because nobody would come to a psychiatry clinic. But they would come to a place that was special because it made them feel special.

And I guess it was around that time that James started collaborators-- CALGB. On the drive to work one day, Jimmie said, you ask patients every kind of question, like how many bowel movement does he have? You're very invasive in your questions. But you never ask them how they feel.

And so she insisted that James do something about that. And so in order I guess to not get nagged on the car ride every day, he started a quality of life committee in CALGB. And Jimmie chaired that for quite a while.

Eventually, I think James went to Mount Sinai. And Jimmie came along. And she worked at Albert Einstein-- College Hospital-- at Boston College of Medicine. And she was there with actually a bunch of pioneers of psychosomatic medicine. There was a guy named Herb Weiner, and Sig Ackerman, and Jim Strain, and Myron Hofer. These are very important names in our field of psychosomatic medicine.

Jerry Posner at Memorial, Department of Neurology, was looking to bring psychiatry into-- consultative service to Sloan Kettering. And Jimmie often says they couldn't get Ned Cassem from MGH. So they picked her in second tier.

And in 1977, she came there, along with a resident who graduated from Einstein, Mary Jane Massem. And the two of them had an office, with a card table-- as she described-- and a stack of index cards with the patients on them. And they set about starting a consult service.

So in '77, she was the chief of the psychiatry service. And then about '78 or '9, a clinical fellowship was established. The NIMH had an initiative at that point to develop consultation liaisons, psychosomatic medicine fellowships around the country. And so she benefited from that initiative, and started a fellowship. That continued through '78 or so.

And there are a couple of classes of fellows before me. I came to do the fellowship 1984 to '86. And it was during my fellowship, I think, that Jimmie and a woman named Julia Rowland, a psychologist, who's at the Smith Center now-- but was around the NCI's survivorship program for a long time.

DANIEL HAYES: I actually worked with Julia at Georgetown for five years.

WILLIAM BREITBART: At Georgetown, exactly.

So she and Julia wrote the first-- edited the first textbook of psycho-oncology. It was called the Handbook of Psychooncology. And that's the first time I think the term "psychooncology" was used. I think it might have been 19-- late 1980s. It might have been 1989 or so that book came out. And the term psychooncology was not hyphenated at that point. There was no hyphen between the two O's.

Jimmie asked me to write about six chapters. I knew a lot about delirium. I wrote that chapter. I knew a lot about suicide and cancer, which was an early interest of mine. And I knew a lot about neuropsychiatric issues and AIDS.

But I didn't know very much about neuroendocrine phenomena that caused neuropsychiatric syndromes or the psychiatric aspects of head and neck cancer. I said to Jimmie, I don't know anything about these subjects, Jimmie. Do you think I'm the person to write this chapter?

And she said to me, well, Bill, there are no experts in the world in this field.


So after you write the chapter, you will be the expert. So that was the philosophy.

And so as a mentor, I would basically say the greatest thing about her as a mentor was that she gave you the confidence that you could achieve whatever you wanted-- whatever you were driven to achieve. She had that faith in you. The idea was that the only person who really had to believe in what you were doing was you. And if it was important to you to find the answer to that question, that you would be able to do it.

She had a knack for finding people who were very driven, who joined this mission. It was really a mission. It was a calling to provide the human side of cancer care, to provide whole person care, to take care of the person who had cancer while they were going through all the cancer treatments. And the combination therapies that James Holland had come up with.

DANIEL HAYES: Two stories about Jim, who I had more association than with Jimmie. Although Jimmie told me the thing she tell you, which is you got to figure out what you want to do. And then you'll be great at it, because I wasn't sure.

But with Jim Holland, two things. I was the very young guy in a field to be. And I was named chair one of the committees. And he was sitting in the back.

And I was talking about, well, we need a statistical plan, and that sort of thing. And in the back of the room, as only he could do without a microphone, "Well, Hayes, if you need a statistician, it's probably not worth doing."

And other is, I once asked him, between you and Dr. Frye, who was my boss, Dr. Frye White-- the three guys, who actually came up with the idea of combinational therapy? And I might as well have let a fuse to a bomb because he was-- "Well, I did. I was there before they did. They came in. They were in the minority."

And he sent me the protocol. That was David. So to be sure I understood that he had written it before those guys got there. He was quite a character.

And I have to say, your comments about Jimmie, and being married to Jim, were like oil and water. It's unbelievable to me that they actually had a very loving, long-term relationship. She had five children with him, who are all accomplished in their own right.


DANIEL HAYES: And they just they just managed to make it work because he could be hard to deal with. But everybody loved him because of it.

WILLIAM BREITBART: Yeah. I think the secret ingredient there is dedication. They were both people of great dedication and commitment. And they were committed to two things.

They were committed to the work they did. And they were committed to each other and their family. And so I think that was the secret-- the secret ingredient.

DANIEL HAYES: There are a number of things in your own career that struck me as I was going through it. That one of my own interests would be your work with hastened death.

And again, I actually wrote a little sort of term paper kind of thing on this. And it was called assisted suicide. And I think we're talking about the same thing. Talk more about that, and what you've been involved with, and where you think that's going.

WILLIAM BREITBART: Right. Well, my interest in that all started during the AIDS crisis, the AIDS epidemic, in the mid-'80s to mid-'90s or so. And I was right in the thick of it, in Manhattan, in New York City.

And Sloan Kettering had a large population of AIDS patients, because of their interest in Kaposi's sarcoma and lymphomas. And they ended up taking care of a lot of patients. And I saw a lot of patients.

And I was that age-- I was often the age of the patients-- many of the patients who I was treating. It was very difficult work, but very inspiring work. You really felt like you were doing important work, obviously.

And because of many of the patients were younger men, men in their 30s, who I could relate to in many ways-- like you, I'm sure there are many patients that you treat. There are some that you feel closer to, you identify a lot more with, right. And these were-- that was the case here.

And at the time, I was treating patients with AIDS. And there was no treat-- there was no therapy at all. And people were dying very difficult deaths.

And I had many, many patients who asked me if I could help them die, if I could assist them in the suicide, could I prescribe their medicine, could I somehow hasten their death? And so for me, it was a clinical problem. What do I do? How do I understand this? What drives this desire to hasten your death?

I knew it came out of a sense of despair. I knew it came out of a distress and a sense of despair. But at the time that this was happening, clinically there was also a big debate in our society about legalization of assisted suicide. And, in fact, I think that was the Supreme Court case of Vacco versus Quill, which was also being adjudicated at that time. And states, like Oregon, were starting to have a referendum about whether to legalize these things.

So I thought, does one create policies based on popular opinion, or whatever, or a public opinion? Or do you create policies by understanding of the problem and that's informed by research? So I thought I needed to understand this.

If I was going to be helpful as a psychiatrist, in this kind of a setting. And it came up occasionally with cancer patients, too. But it was just so dramatic.

And it confronted me for the first time, mainly during the AIDS crisis. I felt I needed to understand it more, so that I could know how to be helpful or useful. Was I going to be able to eliminate the suffering? Or was my only option to eliminate the sufferer?

And so we set about doing a set of studies, both in terminally ill AIDS patients and terminally ill cancer patients. And I actually developed and validated a scale that measured desire for hastened death. It's called the Schedule of Attitudes towards Hastened Death.

Up until that point, people didn't really have a way of measuring it. They just asked the patient, yes or no, do you have-- or they might qualify it on a 0 to 4 scale or something.

And so what was really interesting-- and one of my early fellows, my first fellow, the first surgeon attending from oncology, Chasnoff, who went back to Canada-- Winnipeg. And he starts to do a study. He did studies around the same time. But he didn't have a validated measure.

But we ended up finding very similar things. As it turned out, about 40%-- 45% of folks who had high desire for hastened death, had a depression. About 17% of patients that had cancer-- we'll stick to the cancer data. About 17% of cancer patients have a high desire for phase. These are patients with advanced cancer, in a palliative care unit, or a hospice, whatever. And about 45% of those patients have a depression that was undiagnosed, untreated.

The other factors that seem to contribute to desire for hastened death were things like lack of social support, uncontrolled pain, and severe physical debilitation. So I said, well, we can treat pain. We can increase social support.

I gave a presentation one day at-- Kathy Foley had worked with George Soros and the Open Society Institute, to develop something called Project on Death in America. And I gave a talk to the board of the Project on Death in America. I was in the class of the first faculty scholars of Project on Death in America. It included a lot of people who are at the forefront of palliative care these days.

But I gave a talk on this, on patient death. And one of the ethicists in the room, a famous ethicist, asked me, well, what happens to desire for hastened death if you treat the depression? And before answering that question, I said to myself, make a mental note. That's your next ROI grant, Bill.

And so what I did after that, is I wrote several grants and did two studies looking at what treating depression in patients with high desire for hastened death. And I did both in AIDS and cancer patients, terminal cancer patients, two different studies.

As it turns out, if you treat-- if someone who has high desire for hastened death and they have a depression, and you treat the depression, 90% of those patients, when their depression remits, the desire for hastened death remits.

But there was still this segment of population of advanced cancer patients, were not depressed, did not have uncontrolled pain, or lack of social support. There were about a 40%-- 35%, 40% of the group, I didn't have the element, the factor that contributed to this desire for hastened death. So I figured there's something there that I haven't found.

So we went back and did further studies. And we looked at other variables, like anxiety, hopelessness, loss of meaning. And what we discovered was that hope of hopelessness and loss of meaning were independent and synergistic factors that contributed to the desire for hastened death, and made up an additional 30% of the so-called variance. So between depression and hopelessness, independent of depression, and loss of meaning independent of depression, you could account for about 85%, 90% of the reasons why patients wanted to desire for hastened death.

Based on my research and the research of others, there's still about a 10% group who are probably not in great despair. But the issue for them is, I live my life in a pretty authentic way. I've been able to control how I live my life. I should be able to. And I want to control the circumstances of my death. And they're not impaired by depression or anything like that.

But when we had the findings of hopelessness and loss of meaning, I said to myself, OK, now I've got to find an intervention for loss of meaning and hopelessness. And I was looking for a drug. I went through every page of the PDR. And there was no drug for loss of meaning or loss of hope.

So I had to turn to psychotherapy. Our CL psychiatrist-- you know, psychosomatic medicine psychiatrists, we like to give drugs. If there's a drug solution, we've got it. I'm your guy. So I had to force myself to turn towards psychotherapy rather later in my career, after doing all of these stimulant trials for fatigue and things like that, and other pharmacological trials for pain-- neuropathic pain, et cetera, delirium trials.

There I was, starting to figure out what kind of psychotherapy can I develop to help enhance sense of meaning and hope? And that's when I turned to, ironically, a Holocaust survivor named Victor Frankl-- and turned to the work of Victor Frank, who wrote the book, Man's Search for Meaning.

His big idea was that meaning is a primary motivating force for human behavior, similar to the idea of libido, and instinctual drive, and things like that. He thought meeting was another important drive. "Better" instinctual, he called it.

And he thought that there were predictable sources of meaning that one could tap into. And so we basically developed-- just sat down in a room with a couple of my fellows. And we hacked out a seven-- or at the beginning, it was group intervention. So it was an eight-session intervention. And then we developed an individual format, seven sessions.

And we basically developed this brief, structured psychotherapy that involved teaching patients the importance of meaning, both didactically and experientially; teaching them the various sources of meaning; and relating it to their cancer experience and living with cancer. And the whole purpose was to be able to get through cancer, and even facing death, by sustaining a sense of meaning for as long as you possibly could.

And that's what we called meaning-centered psychotherapy. I ended up doing four randomized-- NIH-funded, randomized controlled trials of both individual and a group format. And now we have a-- we're in the seventh year of an R25 training grant. We're training a national and international cohort of clinicians to provide meaningful psychotherapy in the manuals and textbooks that are published.

DANIEL HAYES: I'd like to segue this--

WILLIAM BREITBART: [INAUDIBLE], I designated it as a evidence-based intervention for palliative care.

DANIEL HAYES: Well, I'd like to segue, that as you were talking, most of people listening to this are probably medical oncologists. And my impression is, we don't get a lot of this training that you're talking about. And the people you're training, they're probably a psychiatrist, not a medical oncologist. How have you translated that over to our world?

WILLIAM BREITBART: Now, so actually the people we're training-- a few psychiatrists, not too many. We train psychiatrists, social workers, nurses, nurse practitioners, oncology nurse practitioners, oncology nurses, oncologists, chaplains, palliative care docs. We're expanding the training. And it's quite simple.

And it's actually-- but we're working with a group to develop this into a digital app. It might be able to be prescribed by oncologists so that you don't even need a therapist.

DANIEL HAYES: Are you in the weeds with the medical oncologists at Memorial, at Sloan. I mean, do you make rounds with them and help train them?

WILLIAM BREITBART: Yeah. Jimmie started out with one psychiatrist. By the time the Psychiatry Service became a department in 1996, I think there were 12 psychiatrists and psychologists. And as of last count, I think we have 43 faculty, 25 psychiatrists and the rest psychologists, and around 200 staff, including research staff, and research faculty, and psychiatry services. So I took over as chief when Jimmie became the first chair in the Behavioral Sciences Service. And we had a cancer disparities in the Immigrant Health Service. So it's grown quite a bit.

And all of us, we work in a sort of a disease management embedded model. So I originally was the psychiatrist for the Neuropsychology and Pain Service, and moved to the hepato-pancreato-biliary disease management team. But all of my psychiatrists and psychologists are embedded in the Breast Center, and in the GI group, hepato-pancreato-biliary groups, and hepato-neck, and thoracic, and all that. So we're all interacting there.

DANIEL HAYES: How do you translate that outside of Memorial in New York? I mean, most oncologists don't have access to those kinds of resources. And you've got to have thought about that.

WILLIAM BREITBART: About 1996, the National Cancer Center Network, the NCCN, got established and started developing guidelines. And so they asked Jimmie to head up of their guidelines for distress. And I was part of that group, and still am. And what came out of that was screening for distress, using a distress screening tool.

DANIEL HAYES: The distress thermometer-- the distress thermometer.

WILLIAM BREITBART: The distress thermometer, that's exactly right. And that came out of the pain work. The pain guys had the 0 to 10 scale. We didn't want to rip them off too badly. So we didn't want to do the 0 to 10 visual analog scale. So we had to come up with a different metaphor. So we called it "pain throughout."

So the Distress Screening Commission on Cancer, I think, accredits cancer centers through either the Academy of Surgery-- Surgical Oncology or something like that. They mandated that for a cancer center to get accredited, you have to have a distress screening program. And if you have a distress screening program, then you have to have people who respond to these algorithms that get developed for people who they identify with high distress.

So as a result of that one move, that one move of establishing distress stress as the sixth vital sign, which was Jimmie's idea, and developing distress screening, you now have-- every designated NCI-designated cancer center has to have a psychology program of some sort. Now, a lot of them aren't as big as ours. Some of them basically involve a half-time psychiatrist, a chaplain, a psych nurse practitioner, and a couple of social workers. But every cancer center has psycho-oncology present in it now as a result of that.

DANIEL HAYES: I was having dinner one time with Jim and Jimmie. And she said, you two know the blood pressure, the temperature, the weight, pulse. But you have no idea, she said, how they feel. So it wasn't the last time she asked Jim on that question.

And I went, what do you mean? She goes, you need a distress thermometer. She'd already published it. Of course, I didn't know that-- and pulled it out of her purse. And so she had to show the distress thermometer.

WILLIAM BREITBART: That's correct. That's correct. That's correct.

One of the big problems is when Jimmie started-- and you can attest to this-- that in the beginnings of oncology, it wasn't always the case that patients were told exactly what they had. Cancer was very stigmatized. The only thing that's more stigmatized than an illness like cancer is mental health, right. God forbid, you should have a problem with depression, or coping, or panic, or something.

DANIEL HAYES: It's a sign of weakness.

WILLIAM BREITBART: A weakness, moral weakness. Actually, we've come a long way in terms of truth telling and being transparent. And my patients now know exactly all the genetic mutations of about the tumor and stuff like that. They know everything. And they even know how their tumor is-- mutations are evolving and changing over time.

But cancer was-- the idea of needing psychosocial counseling-- psychiatric help, psychological help, it was very stigmatized. So even the word "distress" was chosen out of a concern to not stigmatize patients.

DANIEL HAYES: I will tell you that when-- I was at the Dana Farber. And there was a push for the Dana Farber to develop its own hospice program. And Dr. Frye, who was physician-in-chief, absolutely drew a line, and said no way because that means we've given up on those patients. We're not going to have a hospice program at Dana Farber because we don't want patients to think they're coming here to die.

And I remember thinking that some of them do. And it would be very helpful if we had a way to help them figure it out. And I have to say, in preparing for this podcast, I've read several your papers. And thought, God, I wish you'd been at the Dana Farber when I was there. Or I wish I'd been at Memorial to get to work with you.

But you can see I'm kind of tying things up here. Because I could listen to you for hours,but But we only have 20 or 30 minutes. And this has been terrific.

WILLIAM BREITBART: I appreciate the opportunity.

DANIEL HAYES: I'm sure our listeners will say, maybe-- I wonder how we can get him to come speak to our program. But I already wrote down here, we're going to invite you to Michigan.

WILLIAM BREITBART: Well, in this era of Zoom-- in this era of Zoom, I'm a very cheap date because all you have to do is just connect me by Zoom. You don't have to pay for the air fare or anything. I go everywhere.

DANIEL HAYES: I want to thank you for lots of reasons. One is for filling our listeners in-- many of them are young-- about who Dr. Holland was and what she did. Because we all owe her an enormous debt of gratitude for the contributions she made-- and you personally, as well.

So thank you for taking your time to speak with us. And we really appreciate it. And I hope our paths cross again in the near future. Thanks a lot.

WILLIAM BREITBART: Absolutely. Thank you so much. It was my pleasure. Appreciate it.


DANIEL HAYES: Until next time, thank you for listening to this JCO's Cancer Stories-- The Art of Oncology podcast. If you enjoyed what you heard today, don't forget to give us a rating or a review on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. While you're there, be sure to subscribe so you never miss an episode. JCO's Cancer Stories-- The Art of Oncology podcast is just one of ASCO's many podcasts. You can find all the shows at