Justice Ginsburg Has Cancer Surgery

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has had a cancerous tumor removed from her pancreas. The 75-year-old justice is expected to remain in the hospital for seven to 10 days. She was treated for colon cancer in 1999.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the only woman on the nation's highest court, had surgery today to remove a cancerous tumor from her pancreas. The surgery was performed at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York City, where doctors say she is expected to remain for seven to 10 days. Ginsburg is 75 years old. She was appointed to the court in 1993 by President Clinton. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg joins us now. And Nina, tell us more about this diagnosis, please.

NINA TOTENBERG: Well, pancreatic cancer is always serious, here more so because it's Justice Ginsburg's second cancer. Ten years ago she had colon cancer and she's had a routine screening every year since, which is how they caught this. That's the good news, because they got it early. The bad is - news is - that the statistics on pancreatic cancer are pretty grim. According to the National Cancer Institute, it's the fourth most deadly cancer in the United States. Even though it's relatively rare, meaning it accounts for only about 3 percent of the cancer cases.

BLOCK: And what are the survival rates?

TOTENBERG: Well, they're pretty terrible, because it's almost always caught late. Overall, the five-year survival rate is only about 5 percent. In most cases it's discovered so late that it's inoperable. One leading pancreatic surgeon that I talked to today said that only about 15 percent of patients can be operated on. Of course those who have an operation, the range is somewhere between 10 or 15 percent to 30 percent survival rate after five years, depending on what stage the cancer is, whether the surgeons could get what are called clean margins, and whether it's metastasized.

BLOCK: Now, in Justice Ginsburg's case, you said they caught it early - what does that mean? How early?

TOTENBERG: Well, her surgeon, Dr. Murray Brennan, said the original CAT scan showed a one centimeter lesion, which is extremely small. But it takes days to do the pathology on the tumor and see what stage or type it is and how advanced. Doctors say that most of these tumors are a pretty nasty variety, but some are less so, and if you can get them in time, your chances of survival go way up.

BLOCK: What have you heard, Nina, about Justice Ginsburg's plans for the court?

TOTENBERG: Well, her friends say that she plans to be back on the bench February 23rd. She's never missed a day of court because of illness, not even when she had colon cancer or afterwards when she had chemotherapy and radiation. But doctors say the procedure she likely had is, is quite a wallop, so it may be more difficult than she thinks. If it's at all possible though, this is one determined woman. She may be 100 pounds dripping wet, but I wouldn't count her out even for the February sitting, and if she doesn't feel up to being at the court, she can listen to the arguments on tape and participate that way.

BLOCK: So no plans on retiring as far as you know?

TOTENBERG: She has no plans to retire. I'm told that she plans to stay on the court as long as she thinks she is able to function well. She's tough, as I said, and I'm sure she's not giving up. But I would also have to say that Ruth Ginsburg is a realist, and one thing is certain, she must know that this is going to increase speculation about a possible retirement.

BLOCK: And surely the White House would have been thinking about possible nominees either for Justice Ginsburg or any other opening. Who might be on that list?

TOTENBERG: Well, I'm told that they had just started to work up lists, and who's going to be on that list? Women. Before this, when they thought it more likely would be Justice Stevens or Justice Souter who might be retiring, it was mainly women. Now I'm sure it's exclusively women. And the names you hear most often are all the same: there's Judge Diane Wood from the Seventh Circuit, who taught at the University of Chicago at the same time that Obama did, so she knows him; Elena Kagan, who is slated to become the solicitor general, the government's chief advocate in the Supreme Court, and who's the dean of the Harvard Law School; Sonia Sotomayor, who's a judge on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, and who also is something of a two-fer, she is also Hispanic; Jennifer Granholm, the governor of Michigan, who has also been an attorney general; and Janet Napolitano.

BLOCK: Okay, NPR's Nina Totenberg, thanks so much.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

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.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: