Justice Ginsburg Diagnosed With Cancer In the Lung: What We Know–And What We Don’t Know

The announcement today that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has undergone surgery for cancer in her lung reminds us all that in situations like this we need to be cautious in speculating as to exactly what has happened to the Justice. Notwithstanding information that has been made available to the public in several reports, we need to be aware that there is likely additional information that is not yet available to the media and others.

As in similar situations where those who are in the public arena—be they judges, politicians, actors/actresses or other celebrities—the information they choose to share is usually carefully vetted before being released. Sometimes the information is freely provided. Other times, it is kept very private. Either way, we need to respect those decisions which can be very personal.

What we do know at this time is that Justice Ginsburg was first diagnosed with colon cancer in 1999. In 2009, during a routine follow-up examination, she was found to have another primary cancer in the pancreas. She underwent surgery and to the best of our knowledge has been cancer free until today’s announcement.

In November, Judge Ginsburg fell and had rib fractures. During the evaluation that followed, apparently two nodules were discovered. According to information from a reliable news source, these were “two non-small cancerous lesions” which were resected today and were reported as “early stage lung cancer.”

What we do not know is the final pathology report, or what the staging prior to and at the time of surgery showed. We do know that according to an announcement from the Supreme Court that Justice Ginsburg currently has no detectable cancer.

Every individual case has its own unique characteristics, but the information that has been provided suggests Justice Ginsburg may have a good prognosis. However, we must always be cautious in situations like this and avoid statements that overstate outcomes from a disease that can behave unpredictably. Factors such as the location of the tumors, the precise type and characteristics of the tumor, and the size of the tumor all factor into an assessment of outcome. Simply stated we do not have that information.

You will recall that former President Jimmy Carter was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma in 2015 that had spread to the liver and brain, and was treated with radiation therapy, surgery, and immunotherapy for a brief period. And fortunately based on information we have he continues to remain active and free of disease. It is important to remember that because of the nature of his disease some thought his prognosis was poor. That has clearly not been the case. However it serves as a real-life example of why speculation in situations such as this is not something we should engage in.

We at the American Cancer Society wish Justice Ginsburg well as she recovers from her surgery. As someone who has been diagnosed and treated for what appear to be three different cancers, she remains an example to many as she continues her career and her commitment to the Court and the country.


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J. Leonard Lichtenfeld's Biography

Dr. Len

J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, MD, MACP: Dr. Lichtenfeld currently serves as Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the American Cancer Society in the Society's Office of the Chief Medical Officer located at the Society's Corporate Center in Atlanta. Dr. Lichtenfeld joined the Society in 2001 as a medical editor, and in 2002 assumed responsibility for managing the Society's then newly created Cancer Control Science Department which included the prevention and early detection of cancer, emerging cancer science and trends, health equity, quality of life for cancer patients, the science of cancer communications and the role of nutrition and physical activity in cancer prevention and cancer care.  In 2014, Dr. Lichtenfeld assumed his current role in the Office of the Chief Medical Officer where he provides extensive support to a number of Society colleagues and activities. As a result of his over four decades of experience in cancer care, Dr. Lichtenfeld is frequently quoted in the print and electronic media regarding the Society's positions on a number of important issues related to cancer. He has testified regularly in legislative and regulatory hearings, and participated on numerous panels regarding cancer care, research, advocacy and related topics. He has served on a number of advisory committees and boards for organizations that collaborate with the Society to reduce the burden of cancer nationally and worldwide. He is well known for his blog (www.cancer.org/drlen) which first appeared in 2005 and which continues to address many topics related to cancer research and treatment. A board certified medical oncologist and internist who was a practicing physician for over 19 years, Dr. Lichtenfeld has long been engaged in health care policy on a local, state, and national level.  He is active in several state and national medical organizations and has a long-standing interest in professional legislative and regulatory issues related to health care including physician payment, medical care delivery systems, and health information technology. Dr. Lichtenfeld is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Hahnemann Medical College (now Drexel University College of Medicine) in Philadelphia.  His postgraduate training was at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the National Cancer Institute in Baltimore. He is a member of Alpha Omega Alpha, the national honor medical society.  Dr. Lichtenfeld has received several awards in recognition of his efforts on behalf of his colleagues and his professional activities.  He has been designated a Master of the American College of Physicians in acknowledgement of his contributions to internal medicine.  Dr. Lichtenfeld is married, and resides in Atlanta and Thomasville, Georgia.

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