Panic spread among liberals in November when word got out that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had been hospitalized after falling in her office and breaking three ribs.
On Friday, we learned that after taking CT scans of her ribs, doctors noticed an abnormality in her lungs that turned out to be cancerous. In a press release, the Supreme Court said two lesions were removed with surgery on Friday. No other disease was found in her body.
“Short of complications in recovery, doctors say prospects look good for a full recovery for Ginsburg,” NPR’s Nina Totenberg reported. “She hopes to be back on the court for the start of the next argument session in early January.”
Ginsburg, who was appointed in 1993 by then-President Bill Clinton, is one of four liberals in the now 5-4 majority conservative Supreme Court. She’s also the oldest serving justice. If she has to step down or dies suddenly, President Trump would be able to make a third appointment for an even stronger conservative majority. So her health is carefully scrutinized by people on both sides of the aisle.
But the recent broken ribs haven’t stopped the unflappable Notorious RBG, a nickname for the justice popularized in recent years (in 2015, Irin Carmon’s biography with that title was published). Her personal trainer, Bryant Johnson told Vox in November, “[She’s] gone through peaks and valleys, and it’s not the first time she’s broken her ribs. She’s tough as nails.”
To be clear, falls, broken bones, and surgery can be serious health setbacks for older people. And this is by no means RBG’s first brush with hospitals. She’s lived through many personal and familial medical dramas, including two previous surgeries for cancer — all of which she’s bounced back from.
Given the high stakes many liberals attach to Ginsburg’s health, it’s worth looking at what the justice has endured through her life. Her track record is a testament to her special tenacity, but also to how incredibly resilient humans can be.
The incredible resilience of RBG
The Supreme Court is a lifetime appointment, which means people can get very old — and sick — while on the bench. But compared to other justices, Ginsburg has been quite public with her health issues, of which she’s faced several. Here’s a quick recap:
- In 1999, Ginsburg was diagnosed with colon cancer. The disease was detected by accident at an early stage after Ginsburg had gone to the doctor for an abdominal infection. Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation followed — and despite all that, Ginsburg didn’t miss a day on the bench.
- Ten years later, in 2009, she had surgery for pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest kinds of cancer. At the time, surgery for it was rare — it’s usually detected too late — but her tumor was again found by accident during a check-up. And again, she made it clear she wouldn’t miss a day in court.
- In both 2012 and 2013, she fell in her home, suffering rib injuries. (Falls and broken bones in the elderly are heavily associated with a higher risk of health complications and mortality.)
- In 2014, she had to be hospitalized for a surgery to have a heart stent implanted. The device was put in to improve blood flow after a bout of chest pain, and she was again working from the hospital right after the operation and quickly released.
Ginsburg works out twice a week with a personal trainer
These are just the major health incidents that have gone public — and are good fodder for the recent documentary and forthcoming biopic. We don’t know what Ginsburg has experienced privately.
It’s also worth noting that her mom endured cancer when the justice was in high school, and died on the eve of her high school graduation. And after Ginsburg had her daughter, in 1955, her husband Martin Ginsburg was diagnosed with testicular cancer. They went on to have a son in 1965, and stayed married until Martin’s death in 2010 — days after the couple celebrated their 56th wedding anniversary.
At 85, Ginsburg still exercises two days a week with Johnson, and her routine is typically not an easy one. Immortalized in Johnson’s book The RBG Workout, the workout reportedly involves Ginsburg breezing through pushups, planks, and squats.
Johnson, who has trained her for 19 years, said the judge has shared the details of her workouts in part to empower older women and cancer survivors.
Though Ginsburg’s doctors are hopeful for a full recovery from the lung cancer surgery, thoracic surgeons told NPR that “Justice Ginsburg’s prognosis ultimately will depend on the pathology findings, which will not be available until days after the surgery. If there is no lymph node involvement, surgeons ... said the prognosis for being cancer-free at five years out is 80 percent.” Complications from this kind of surgery happen about 5 to 10 percent of the time.