The Courts

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Has Been Undergoing Cancer Treatment Since May

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg / Getty Images

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg announced Friday that she has been undergoing chemotherapy for a recurrence of cancer since May, but has no plans to retire.

The justice's health is much-watched ahead of the November general election, as her departure would prompt an abrupt ideological tilt on the right-leaning Court.

The 87-year-old jurist began a course of chemotherapy on May 19 after a biopsy revealed lesions on her liver, according to a statement the High Court released at noon on Friday. Ginsburg said she delayed disclosing the disease until settling on a course of treatment.

"I have often said I would remain a member of the Court as long as I can do the job full steam," Ginsburg said. "I remain fully able to do that."

There are no rules governing medical disclosures that bind the justices. Friday’s announcement keeps with a pattern of major health announcements from Ginsburg that appear only after treatment is well under way. More is known about Ginsburg’s health as compared with most of her colleagues.

Initial treatment via immunotherapy proved unsuccessful, prompting a Gemzar-based chemotherapy regiment, according to the statement. The justice said she is tolerating treatment well and was encouraged by a July 7 scan showing "significant reduction" of the liver lesions. Recent hospitalizations for gall stones and treatment of an infection were unrelated to her cancer diagnosis.

Bi-weekly chemotherapy will continue to keep the cancer at bay, and the justice is optimistic she can maintain an active routine.

Ginsburg has undergone other cancer treatments during her tenure on the bench. She was treated for colon cancer with both chemo and radiation therapy in 1999. She again completed several weeks of focused radiation treatment when a tumor was detected on her pancreas in August 2019. Other surgeries were performed in 2009 and 2018 to address cancerous growths in her lungs and pancreas.

All told, the latest diagnosis makes for Ginsburg’s fifth bout with cancer.

The justice has been prompt in disclosing short-term hospitalizations for minor health problems. However, she has tended to put off announcing her cancer diagnoses until more is known about the course forward.

For example, Ginsburg told an interviewer that her health was "fine" during an event on Dec. 15, 2018, at the Museum of the City of New York. Less than one week later on Dec. 21, surgeons successfully performed a pulmonary lobectomy at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to remove cancerous nodules from her left lung. The procedure was disclosed that same day and indicated that pre-surgical scans showed no evidence of remaining disease.

Similarly, Ginsburg did not announce that she underwent radiation therapy related to a pancreatic tumor in 2019 until after the regimen was complete. The treatment lasted three weeks and was disclosed the day it concluded. Doctors said the growth was treated "definitively" at that time.

The approach might be considered responsible from an institutional perspective, since uncertainty would inflame morbid speculation.

Gabe Roth, the executive director of nonpartisan judicial watchdog Fix the Court, told the Washington Free Beacon that he is glad Ginsburg is forthcoming about her hospital stays.

"I believe it’s important for the justices to be forthcoming about any major health issues so the public can have continued faith in their abilities," Roth told the Free Beacon. "Though I'm saddened that Justice Ginsburg has had yet another bout with cancer, I'm pleased that she's at ‘full steam,' is responding to treatment and, unlike at least one colleague, is open about her hospitalizations."

Chief Justice John Roberts, on the other hand, did not announce an overnight hospital stay in June until the Washington Post inquired about it in July. Roberts was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital after he fell at a Maryland country club and injured his head.

Update 2:46 p.m.: This post has been updated with additional information.