Ginsburg Has Surgery For Pancreatic Cancer

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg underwent surgery in New York for the removal of a cancerous tumor from her pancreas. Her cancer was discovered early during a routine exam in January. Ginsburg previously received treatment for colon cancer.

Nina Totenberg, legal affairs correspondent for NPR, talks about what the diagnosis means for Ginsburg, and what Ginsburg means to the Supreme Court.

Justice Ginsburg Undergoes Cancer Surgery

About Pancreatic Cancer

Only 5 percent of people diagnosed are alive five years later. Read more about the disease.

At A Glance: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

  • Born March 15, 1933, in Brooklyn, N.Y.
  • In 1954, graduates from Cornell University and marries Martin Ginsburg. (They have two children, Jane and James.)
  • In 1956, enrolls in Harvard Law School, one of nine women in a class of more than 500.
  • In 1958, transfers to Columbia University Law School, where she ties for first place in her class.
  • In 1963, joins the faculty of Rutgers University Law School. During the 1960s, she assists the New Jersey affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union in litigating sex discrimination cases.
  • In 1972, the ACLU selects Ginsburg to head its Women's Rights Project; the same year, she becomes the first tenured female professor at Columbia University Law School.
  • Between 1972 and 1978, she wins five out of six cases involving sexual inequality that she argues before the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • In 1980, President Carter names Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
  • On Aug. 10, 1993, becomes the second female justice on the Supreme Court after being nominated by President Clinton.
  • As a relatively new justice in 1996, she writes the court's 7-to-1 opinion declaring that the Virginia Military Institute can no longer remain an all-male institution.
  • In 1999, Ginsburg undergoes surgery for colon cancer, as well as chemotherapy and radiation treatment..
  • In 2007, writes dissenting opinions in two prominent cases: one in which the Supreme Court limited the time frame for bringing pay discrimination cases; and the other in which the majority upheld a federal ban on partial-birth abortions.
  • In 2009, she has surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from her pancreas.

Sources: Supreme Court biography; NPR staff reports; Supreme Court Historial Society; The Associated Press

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the only woman currently serving on the nation's highest court, underwent surgery Thursday for removal of a cancerous tumor from her pancreas.

Ginsburg, 75, is being treated at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Ginsburg has served on the court since 1993.

She was treated for colon cancer 10 years ago.

Ginsburg's pancreatic cancer was discovered early, in the course of a routine annual screening, but medical literature says even in this circumstance — when the cancer is detected early enough for surgery — a patient's five-year survival chances range from 10 to 30 percent.

Overall, only 5 percent of people who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer survive for five years.

Doctors say the relatively bleak survival rate associated with pancreatic cancer is due in significant part to the fact that cancers of the pancreas are often discovered late, when the cancer is very advanced.

A release from the court says Ginsburg's surgeon, Dr. Murray Brennan, expects her to stay in the hospital for seven to 10 days.

"Justice Ginsburg had no symptoms prior to the incidental discovery of the lesion during a routine annual check-up in late January at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. A computerized Axial Tomography (CAT) Scan revealed a small tumor, approximately 1 (centimeter) across, in the center of the pancreas," the statement said.

On Thursday afternoon, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president has not yet spoken to Ginsburg. "(President Obama's) thoughts and prayers are with her and her family right now, and we hope for and wish her a speedy recovery right now," Gibbs said.

Because Ginsburg previously underwent radiation treatment after her colon surgery, she likely will not be able to have radiation treatment a second time, doctors say. Chemotherapy has not proved to be curative for pancreatic cancer, according to medical literature.

The justice is known for her toughness, and she has told friends she intends to be back on the bench when the court reconvenes in three weeks. She has never missed a day of court because of any illness. But doctors say the surgery she underwent Thursday is a blow to the system that takes time to recover from and there are often complications.

White House sources say that the president's top legal aides have already begun compiling lists of potential replacements in the event that any of the justices retire this year. And even before the news broke about Ginsburg, speculation focused heavily on potential female candidates. Now, it's likely the list will be all female.

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