From Cytology to Psychology to Psycho-Oncology

Christine Leahy ’95
“I had no idea I’d end up in this field,” says Dr. Julia Howe Rowland ’67, a pioneer in the area known as psycho-oncology. She has spent most of her career working with cancer patients on quality-of-life issues during and after treatment.

When she was at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Julia set up its first post-treatment program to address the kinds of questions and needs patients have during recovery. Today, she is director of the Office of Cancer Survivorship at the National Cancer Institute. She meets with scientists, secures grant funding for research and travels for public-speaking engagements with professionals and cancer survivors. “Survivorship is growing,” she says. “There are currently 14.5 million cancer survivors in the US. Cancer’s now becoming more like a chronic illness. That’s a big change.”

“I’ve been in the cancer world for a while,” Julia notes, “but I started at the cellular level.” Having been motivated by fantastic science teachers at Spence (where her mother was an English and Grade 6 homeroom teacher), Julia studied biology as an undergraduate—but not, she points out, pre-med or psychology. She started her career in the laboratory after attending a program at the University of Chicago where she learned to read Pap smears, and then worked in labs in Paris and New York. “Then I realized I was more interested in psychology than cytology,” she quips. While earning a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at Columbia, she became a research assistant at Montefiore Medical Center to Dr. Jimmie Holland, who was studying the psychiatric adaptation to breast cancer.

After her graduate studies, Julia had her own therapy practice dedicated to cancer patients and caregivers. “Working with this population is a privilege,” she says. “You are humbled by the incredible resilience of individuals in the face of frightening, adverse circumstances. People often come in need and you can do something that can ease their suffering in a profound way.” Julia observes that there is another side to the optimism she has experienced in her work. It has also made her “mindful of the fragility of life.”

For that reason, Julia found it hard to work in pediatrics after the birth of her first child. After the arrival of her second child, however, she was able to return to pediatrics because she focused on the incredible resilience of children. “We’re reminded of what we have,” Julia says of her work. And her appreciation for life is nurtured not only by her job: this spring she will celebrate the birth of her first grandchild.
    • Julia Howe Rowland ’67