Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is resting in a New York hospital following surgery to remove two malignant growths in her left lung, the third time the Supreme Court’s oldest justice has been treated for cancer and her second stay in a hospital in two months.
Worries over Ginsburg’s health have been a constant of sorts for nearly 10 years, and for liberals, particularly in the last two. Ginsburg, the leader of the court’s liberal wing and known to her fans as the Notorious RBG, has achieved an iconic status rare for Supreme Court justices.
If she did step down, President Donald Trump would have another opportunity to move a conservative court even more to the right. “Wishing Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg a full and speedy recovery!” Trump tweeted after the court’s announcement Friday.
But Ginsburg has always bounced back before, flaunting her physical and mental fitness.
After past health scares, she has resumed the exercise routine popularized in a book written by her personal trainer and captured in a Stephen Colbert video. Weeks after cracking three ribs in a fall at the Supreme Court in November, the 85-year-old Ginsburg was asking questions at high court arguments, speaking at a naturalization ceremony for new citizens and being interviewed at screenings of the new movie about her, “On the Basis of Sex.”
Ginsburg will remain in the hospital for a few days, the court said. She has never missed arguments in more than 25 years as a justice. The court next meets on Jan. 7.
While it’s hard to refer to good luck and cancer diagnoses in the same breath, this is the second time for Ginsburg that cancerous growths have been detected at an apparently early stage through unrelated medical tests.
The nodules on her lung were found during X-rays and other tests Ginsburg had after she fractured ribs in a fall in her Supreme Court office on Nov. 7, the court said. In 2009, routine follow-up screening after Ginsburg’s colorectal cancer 10 years earlier detected a lesion on her pancreas. Doctors operated and removed the growth they’d previously spotted, plus a smaller one they hadn’t seen before. The larger growth was benign, while the smaller one was malignant.
Doctors who are not involved in Ginsburg’s care said she may have gotten lucky again, although they caution it is too soon to know.
“This is just luck” that the growths were found through those rib X-rays because accidentally discovered lung tumors tend to be early-stage when surgery works best, said Dr. Giuseppe Giaccone, an oncologist at Georgetown University’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Dr. John Lazar, director of thoracic robotic surgery at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, said it’s not uncommon to see slow-growing lung cancers in women in their 80s, and they tend to respond well to surgery and go on to die of something unrelated, he said.
Ginsburg’s previous bouts with cancer were so long ago they’re unlikely to be related, Giaccone said.
“If she doesn’t need anything but the surgery, it is a very good sign,” Lazar said.
Both doctors said patients typically spend three days or four days in the hospital after this type of operation.
On Friday, doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York performed a procedure called a pulmonary lobectomy on Ginsburg. The growths they removed were determined to be malignant in an initial pathology evaluation, the court said, citing Ginsburg’s thoracic surgeon, Dr. Valerie W. Rusch.
But there was “no evidence of any remaining disease” and scans taken before the surgery showed no cancerous growths elsewhere in her body, the court said. No additional treatment is currently planned, it said.
Among other health problems, she also broke two ribs in a fall in 2012 and had a stent implanted to open a blocked artery in 2014. She was hospitalized after a bad reaction to medicine in 2009.
Appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, Ginsburg rebuffed suggestions from some liberals that she should step down in the first two years of President Barack Obama’s second term, when Democrats controlled the Senate and would have been likely to confirm her successor.
She already has hired clerks for the term that extends into 2020, indicating she has no plans to retire.