Ruth Bader Ginsburg treated for pancreatic cancer. Here’s what we know
WASHINGTON — Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has completed three weeks of radiation treatment for a localized cancerous tumor on her pancreas.
“The abnormality was first detected after a routine blood test in early July,” the Supreme Court said in a statement Friday. ”The tumor was treated definitively and there is no evidence of disease elsewhere in her body. Justice Ginsburg will continue to have periodic blood tests and scans. No further treatment is needed at this time.”
Here is what we know about Ginsburg’s health and her previous battles with cancer.
Ginsburg v. cancer
Ginsburg has a long history of fighting various forms of cancer.
More: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg treated for malignant tumor on pancreas
Her latest treatment comes less than a year after she underwent an operation to remove cancerous growths from her lungs in December. The growths were discovered after a fall that resulted in three fractured ribs.
Ginsburg endured a lengthy battle with colorectal cancer in 1999. A decade later, she had pancreatic cancer, often deadly but in her case detected early. In 2009, two growths were removed from her pancreas, one of which was benign, along with her spleen, the Washington Post reported at the time.
“She was very lucky in 2009,” Dr. Hedy Kindler, a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, told USA TODAY.
What is pancreatic cancer?
The Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research says that in 2019, an estimated 56,770 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the U.S., and more than 45,750 will die from the disease. Pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality rate of all major cancers.
Pancreatic cancer often doesn’t show any obvious signs, which is why it’s typically not found until its late stages, according to the American Cancer Society. The pancreas is deep inside the body, so early tumors can’t be seen or felt by health care providers during routine physical exams.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the pancreas releases hormones, including insulin, to help your body process sugar in the foods you eat as well as produces digestive juices to help your body digest food.
When the tumor is only in the pancreas and doesn’t spread, the five-year survival rate is 37 percent, according to Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, or PanCAN.
However, this form of cancer is one of the world’s deadliest and overall still has a five-year survival rate of just 9 percent, according to the American Cancer Society’s 2019 Cancer Facts & Figures Report. This is because oftentimes the disease does spread elsewhere throughout the body.
It is unclear what kind of pancreatic cancer Ginsburg has suffered from exactly.
Can you cure pancreatic cancer?
USA TODAY asked oncologists about how, and if, you can cure the disease.
Dr. Kindler explained to USA TODAY that the most effective way to cure pancreatic cancer is through removing the affected parts of the pancreas, and that is how Ginsburg was treated in 2009. It is not clear whether any part of her pancreas was removed this past summer, as removing the whole pancreas results in “developing bad diabetes and other health problems.” Dr. Kindler continued, “My guess is it wasn’t removable.”
“When you do localized radiation aimed at just where the tumor is, there is the possibility to control the tumor and control it for a long time.” Dr. Kindler stated.
Regarding treatment, Dr. Ottis Brawley, a professor of oncology at Johns Hopkins University, told USA TODAY, “Someone who exercises like Ginsburg does, those folks tend to do better than folks who are very much affected by the tumor. It is possible for her to do very well.”
“I can say that the statement from the court is the absolute most positive statement that any doctor can make about the situation. That is the most hopeful statement that we can have,” he continued.
Ginsburg’s cultural relevance
Justice Ginsburg stands at just 5-foot-1 but has taken on the status of a larger-than-life cultural figure in recent years. She is the oldest justice on the Supreme Court; she was appointed by President Bill Clinton and confirmed by the Senate in 1993.
Ginsburg was the second woman ever appointed to the high court, after Sandra Day O’Connor, who served from 1981 to 2006.
Ginsburg is a former women’s rights lawyer who argued groundbreaking gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court early in her career. She was just one of nine women granted admission to Harvard Law School in 1956 in the early years of the elite institution going co-ed.
More: How Ruth Bader Ginsburg became a legit pop-culture icon
The liberal jurist has become known in popular culture in recent years as “Notorious R.B.G.” — a play on the late rapper Notorious B.I.G. — after an internet meme was created that features a visage of the justice wearing a crown and her trademark lace collar. The rap-inspired nickname was also the title of a blog by former New York University law student Shana Knizhnik launched in the summer of 2013, when Ginsburg delivered a particularly scathing dissent about the imperative of voting rights in states with histories of racial discrimination.
The 2018 film “On The Basis of Sex” took a deep dive into Ginsburg’s early career as a struggling attorney who faced obstacles in her fight for equal rights. The film highlights Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, a seemingly minor case involving an unmarried man who was denied a $600 tax deduction for payment for his aging mother’s caretaker, on the basis of sex.
On the Supreme Court, Ginsburg has become known for her dissenting opinions as she has served on the court for more than two decades during which it has had a conservative majority. “When a justice is of the firm view that the majority got it wrong, she is free to say so in dissent. I take advantage of that prerogative, when I think it important, as do my colleagues,” she explained in a New York Times opinion piece she wrote in 2016.
Contributing: Richard Wolf, Patrick Ryan