AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had surgery today for early stage lung cancer. The odds for a full recovery from the disease at that stage have dramatically improved in recent years. That said, this is the 85-year-old liberal icon's third bout with cancer.
To talk more about Ginsburg's health, we're joined in the studio now by NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Hey, Nina.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Hi.
CHANG: So Ginsburg had surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York today. What details can you share about the procedure she had? How did it go?
TOTENBERG: Well, so far, so good is the report. The surgery was a lobectomy, the removal of one of the five lobes of the lung. It was performed this morning at Memorial Sloan Kettering, as you said. The justice had no symptoms prior to the discovery of the cancer. It was discovered incidentally last month when she fell and fractured several ribs. Subsequent scans followed by other tests and biopsies showed two suspicious lesions.
Both were confirmed today as malignant, according to Dr. Valerie Rusch, who performed the surgery. She said there was no evidence of any remaining disease. Also, scans performed before the surgery indicated no evidence of disease elsewhere in the body. Dr. Rusch said that currently there is - no further treatment is planned, meaning no chemotherapy or radiation is planned as of now.
CHANG: OK, so early stage cancer, and it sounds like it wasn't too severe.
TOTENBERG: Well, I've talked to a bunch of leading thoracic surgeons who say Ginsburg was incredibly lucky that this was discovered so early, when the odds of recovery are better, especially in light of new minimally invasive surgical methods that involve small incisions and not much pain compared to the old open way of doing these operations that involved just huge wounds.
CHANG: What are the prospects for recovery in her case or in cases like this?
TOTENBERG: Well, a lot depends on what the pathology report shows days from now. The existence of two lesions may make this a stage 2 instead of a stage 1 cancer. But Dr. Douglas Mathisen, who's chief of thoracic surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital, says if the pathology report shows no lymph node involvement...
DOUGLAS MATHISEN: Then you may have upwards of a 75 or 80 percent five-year survival with complete removal of the tumor.
TOTENBERG: If there is lymph node involvement within the lobe that's been removed, he said, the odds of survival at five years out drop down to about 50 percent.
CHANG: OK, so the court reconvenes to hear arguments January 7, which is just a little more than two weeks away. And during her 25 years on the court, Justice Ginsburg has never missed a day, not a single day of oral arguments, which is just incredible. But is she really going to be able to keep that track record going? I mean, doesn't she need to rest?
TOTENBERG: She might, but doctors say that if there are no serious complications, she'd likely be home in three or four days and able to make calls and do desk work. And barring complications, her main enemy in the short run will be fatigue. But doctors say if she doesn't overdo it, she should be in pretty good shape maybe to be there in time for the next argument calendar, maybe in four weeks.
CHANG: Of course the question on many people's minds whenever Ginsburg's health comes up - you know, she's 85. As we said, this is her third bout with cancer. Are liberals getting nervous about the possibility that President Trump could get a third pick for the Supreme Court?
TOTENBERG: You bet (laughter). Democrats, liberals - they're terrified that Trump will get a third bite at the Supreme Court apple. And just to underline the stakes, today the Supreme Court dealt a setback to the Trump administration in its attempt to implement a new rule that bars people who cross the border illegally from seeking asylum. The lower courts so far have prevented the policy from going into effect. The vote not to intervene at the Supreme Court level was 5 to 4 with Chief Justice Roberts joining the court's four liberals. Now, if Ginsburg were not on the court, the vote likely would have gone the other way.
CHANG: That's NPR's Nina Totenberg. Thanks so much, Nina.
TOTENBERG: Thank you.
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