Friday, February 6, 2009

Justice Ginsburg Treated for Pancreatic Cancer

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the only woman on the Supreme Court and a survivor of colorectal cancer a decade ago, underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer Thursday.
The news, revealed by court officials in a brief statement, raises questions about the health and future court service of the 75-year-old justice. Pancreatic cancer is one of the most lethal of all cancers, and its treatment can be particularly grueling and difficult.
Ginsburg learned of the lesion during a routine annual checkup in late January, the court statement said. A scan revealed the 1-centimeter tumor in the center of the pancreas. Surgery at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City was performed by Murray Brennan, a leading specialist in pancreatic cancer.
The court said Ginsburg was expected to be hospitalized for seven to 10 days. It had no comment on her follow-up treatment or how long she might be away from work. The justices are scheduled to begin a new round of oral arguments Feb. 23.
John Allendorf, an attending surgeon in the pancreas center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia, said the relatively small size of Ginsburg's tumor suggests it was caught very early. Patients who have their tumors removed have the only chance of a cure, he said.
The court statement said Ginsburg had no symptoms before the discovery of the lesion. Pancreatic tumors grow rapidly and usually have spread throughout the body by the time their symptoms are detected, making them impossible to remove surgically, says Allendorf, who is not involved in her treatment.
Even with surgery and aggressive chemotherapy, however, pancreatic cancer usually returns. The median survival for Stage 1 disease -- as Ginsburg apparently has -- is two years, Allendorf says, and 30% of patients with Stage 1 cancer survive five years after diagnosis.
News accounts already had focused on possible retirements at the Supreme Court. Five of the nine justices are 70 or older. Ginsburg, who will be 76 on March 15, had said publicly before Thursday's announcement that she did not expect to retire anytime soon.
There was no suggestion Thursday that she would not finish the term, which typically runs until the end of June. The court is closely divided, and if she is not able to vote on cases, could deadlock 4-4 on some disputes.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said President Obama had not talked with Ginsburg but wished her a speedy recovery.
Ginsburg, who first gained national attention as a women's rights advocate arguing sex discrimination cases before the court, was appointed by President Clinton in 1993.
She has continued to be a robust voice for women's rights. Since the 2006 retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Ginsburg has lamented being the only woman on the nation's highest bench.
Several sitting justices have undergone treatment for cancer over the years. Then-chief justice William Rehnquist revealed he had thyroid cancer in October 2004. Throughout chemotherapy and other treatment, he worked until the end of the 2004-05 term. He died on Sept. 3, 2005.
About 37,680 Americans were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2008 and 34,290 died from it, according to the American Cancer Society.
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