What to Know About Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Cancer Recurrence

  • Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is undergoing chemotherapy after discovering cancer in her liver.
  • Ginsburg had received treatment for pancreatic cancer in 2019.
  • She says she’s still able to stay on the Supreme Court.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg announced Friday that she’s currently undergoing cancer treatment.

“On May 19, I began a course of chemotherapy (gemcitabine) to treat a recurrence of cancer,” Ginsburg said in a July 17 statement. “A periodic scan in February followed by a biopsy revealed lesions on my liver. My recent hospitalizations to remove gall stones and treat an infection were unrelated to this recurrence.”

First admitted to Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C., with fever and chills, Ginsburg was admitted to The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, on July 14, according to a recent Supreme Court statement.

That afternoon, the 87-year-old justice underwent an endoscopic procedure to clean out a bile duct stent placed last year.

According to the court, she’s resting and will spend the next few days in hospital receiving intravenous antibiotic treatment.

Cancer treatment

Ginsburg said “initial immunotherapy had proved unsuccessful,” but a recent scan found “significant reduction of the liver lesions and no new disease.”

She added that she’s tolerating chemotherapy well, and is encouraged by the success of current treatment.

She confirmed that she remains fully able to act as a member of the Supreme Court.

“Satisfied that my treatment course is now clear, I am providing this information,” Ginsburg said. “I will continue bi-weekly chemotherapy to keep my cancer at bay, and am able to maintain an active daily routine. Throughout, I have kept up with opinion writing and all other Court work.”

Dr. Hisham El-Bayar, FACS, director of the liver, bile duct, and pancreas program at the Center for Cancer Prevention and Treatment at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange County, California, told Healthline that treatment “should not affect her cognitive abilities at all. Especially since she is so sharp to begin with, but [it] may affect her stamina.”

El-Bayar isn’t involved in Ginsburg’s cancer treatment.

Pancreatic cancer one of the most deadly

Ginsburg first received a pancreatic cancer diagnosis in 2009 but announced a recurrence last year. She’s also received treatment for lung and colon cancer.

According to Johns Hopkins University, pancreatic cancer is the fourth-leading cause of cancer death for both men and women.

Pancreatic cancer is treatable when caught early, but many cases aren’t diagnosed until a later stage.

The American Cancer Society projects more than 47,000 deaths in 2020 from pancreatic cancer.

Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include:

  • smoking
  • being of Ashkenazi Jewish descent
  • having chronic pancreatitis or the BRCA2, p16, STK11 gene mutation
  • being over age 50

El-Bayar says there’s some evidence that the disease is associated with diet, particularly a Western one, and that obesity is a risk factor as well.

He emphasizes pancreatic cancer isn’t entirely preventable, and the only way to screen for it is “in patients with strong family history or genetic disposition, but even then survival [is] not good.”

However, in Ginsburg’s case, he says the odds are in her favor.

“If caught early and in the right position like hers, she should have a 50 percent or more cure, since it was found by accident and was very small from what I have read,” El-Bayar said.

“Survival is not necessarily based on age, but the cancer itself as well as the stage. It is not curable without surgery, which she had,” he said.

Long history fighting the disease

Ginsburg has fought a 20-year battle against different cancers.

She had surgery for colon cancer in 1999, received her first diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in 2009, and was treated for lung cancer in December 2018, reports the Associated Press.

Dr. Alan Venook, a pancreatic cancer specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, who’s not involved in Ginsburg’s care, told the Associated Press that cancer spreading to her liver means “clearly, she’s got incurable disease now.”

Venook confirmed that immunotherapy, which Ginsburg’s statement said she tried unsuccessfully, hasn’t worked well for pancreatic cancer, and the chemotherapy drug gemcitabine, which Ginsburg said she’s receiving, is one often used.

El-Bayar confirms he’s treated many patients in their 80s who received this type of treatment and were able to continue their daily work schedule.

He adds that any side effects are “managed so much more effectively these days, and the drugs are getting better.”

The bottom line

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg announced she’s experiencing recurrent pancreatic cancer that has spread, but that wasn’t related to her recent hospitalization.

Ginsburg was admitted to the hospital July 14 due to fever and chills. While there, she had a bile duct stent cleaned out and was placed on antibiotics.

In a public statement, Ginsburg said she remains fully able to carry out her duties as a member of the court.

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