On Friday, Sept. 18, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at age 87 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. The Justice was a revered feminist icon, famous for her trailblazing advocacy of women’s rights and her fiery written dissents. Her death is a tragic loss for many Americans, yet also a chance to celebrate her remarkable legacy and life.
The Justice battled five bouts of cancer over a span of 21 years, remaining active in the halls of the Court and attending speeches, interviews, and other widely publicized events. She was first diagnosed with early-stage colon cancer in 1999 and had surgery that same year. In 2009, she had surgery again for early-stage pancreatic cancer. Following a fall in 2018, Ginsburg was admitted to the hospital, where doctors found and removed two malignant nodules on her lungs. (She proceeded to vote on a Supreme Court case from her hospital bed.) Her pancreatic cancer returned in 2019, and she declared after radiation therapy that she was again cancer free.
Finally, in a July 2020 Supreme Court statement, Ginsburg revealed that the cancer had returned to her liver and required chemotherapy treatments. She continued to serve, writing, “I have often said I would remain a member of the Court as long as I can do the job full steam. I remain fully able to do that.” Until the very end, she remained committed to her life’s work as an advocate for justice.
Advances in Care
Indeed, Ginsburg was able to fight multiple cancers and remain intellectually sharp and physically active until her final years. (Seriously, have you seen her workout routine?) William Cance, M.D., chief medical and scientific officer for the American Cancer Society in Atlanta, explains that advancements in treatment have made it possible for many cancer patients like her to thrive for years or decades after diagnosis.
“Justice Ginsburg’s ability to undergo treatment for stage IV pancreatic cancer and yet continue her public service really highlights the leaps forward we’ve made in cancer research and care,” says Dr. Cance, adding that it also speaks directly to her "enormous character and commitment to the greater good.”
Dr. Cance notes that advancements in drug therapy, minimally invasive surgical procedures, immunotherapy, and radiation have all contributed to better management of metastatic cancers. “That’s the major goal for treating advanced cancer, to turn it into a chronic, manageable disease,” he says. “We want to not only preserve life, but the quality of life.”
The American Society of Clinical Oncology lays out some of these groundbreaking new treatments:
- A 2019 clinical trial found that stereotactic radiation (a precise form of radiation that lets doctors target tumors) prolongs survival in patients with metastases.
- A new FDA-approved antibody drug can delay recurrence of a certain form of breast cancer.
- Additions to hormone therapy can help improve survival for young breast cancer patients.
The list is long and growing. Dr. Cance notes that the research “has been a gradual, constant, slow-moving advance” that, while certainly not near finished, is seeing significant research breakthroughs every year.
It’s impossible to know specifics of Ginsburg’s cancer battle (and her risk factors) without knowing her personal history. Still, it is imperative for everyone to understand their own unique risk level and have a plan for getting screened. “It’s very important to pay attention to the screening guidelines, particularly for the most common cancers,” Dr. Cance emphasizes. To learn which tests are recommended for your age group, consult this American Cancer Society screening guide.
Family history plays a role in cancer development for many different types of cancer, from colorectal to breast to ovarian. “If your mother, father, brother, sister, or any first-degree relative has certain cancers, you’re at higher risk,” Dr. Cance says. For example, with colon cancer, you’d want to begin screenings 10 years prior to the age at which your first-degree relative was diagnosed. “Make sure your doctor knows about family history,” Dr. Cance says. Your physician can provide you with guidance to get screened at the appropriate time and intervals.
Hope for the Future
More than anything, Ginsburg’s story is a reminder that a cancer diagnosis is by no means a death sentence, even after the disease has progressed. “We’re slowly getting better at advanced cancer treatments, and you can undergo treatment in many cases and live a quality, productive life and stay engaged as Justice Ginsburg did,” Dr. Cance says. “It’s a glimmer of hope that even patients with advanced cancer can go on functioning, working, and living.”
Even now, the late Justice’s life continues to be an inspiration for justice warriors and cancer patients alike. Here’s to fighting–and thriving–in her memory. Rest in power.