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Justice Ginsburg Has Cancer Surgery

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the only woman on the nation's highest court, had surgery today to remove a cancerous tumor from her pancreas. The surgery was performed at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York City, where doctors say she is expected to remain for seven to 10 days. Ginsburg is 75 years old. She was appointed to the court in 1993 by President Clinton. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg joins us now. And Nina, tell us more about this diagnosis, please.

NINA TOTENBERG: Well, pancreatic cancer is always serious, here more so because it's Justice Ginsburg's second cancer. Ten years ago she had colon cancer and she's had a routine screening every year since, which is how they caught this. That's the good news, because they got it early. The bad is - news is - that the statistics on pancreatic cancer are pretty grim. According to the National Cancer Institute, it's the fourth most deadly cancer in the United States. Even though it's relatively rare, meaning it accounts for only about 3 percent of the cancer cases.

BLOCK: And what are the survival rates?

TOTENBERG: Well, they're pretty terrible, because it's almost always caught late. Overall, the five-year survival rate is only about 5 percent. In most cases it's discovered so late that it's inoperable. One leading pancreatic surgeon that I talked to today said that only about 15 percent of patients can be operated on. Of course those who have an operation, the range is somewhere between 10 or 15 percent to 30 percent survival rate after five years, depending on what stage the cancer is, whether the surgeons could get what are called clean margins, and whether it's metastasized.

BLOCK: Now, in Justice Ginsburg's case, you said they caught it early - what does that mean? How early?

TOTENBERG: Well, her surgeon, Dr. Murray Brennan, said the original CAT scan showed a one centimeter lesion, which is extremely small. But it takes days to do the pathology on the tumor and see what stage or type it is and how advanced. Doctors say that most of these tumors are a pretty nasty variety, but some are less so, and if you can get them in time, your chances of survival go way up.

BLOCK: What have you heard, Nina, about Justice Ginsburg's plans for the court?

TOTENBERG: Well, her friends say that she plans to be back on the bench February 23rd. She's never missed a day of court because of illness, not even when she had colon cancer or afterwards when she had chemotherapy and radiation. But doctors say the procedure she likely had is, is quite a wallop, so it may be more difficult than she thinks. If it's at all possible though, this is one determined woman. She may be 100 pounds dripping wet, but I wouldn't count her out even for the February sitting, and if she doesn't feel up to being at the court, she can listen to the arguments on tape and participate that way.

BLOCK: So no plans on retiring as far as you know?

TOTENBERG: She has no plans to retire. I'm told that she plans to stay on the court as long as she thinks she is able to function well. She's tough, as I said, and I'm sure she's not giving up. But I would also have to say that Ruth Ginsburg is a realist, and one thing is certain, she must know that this is going to increase speculation about a possible retirement.

BLOCK: And surely the White House would have been thinking about possible nominees either for Justice Ginsburg or any other opening. Who might be on that list?

TOTENBERG: Well, I'm told that they had just started to work up lists, and who's going to be on that list? Women. Before this, when they thought it more likely would be Justice Stevens or Justice Souter who might be retiring, it was mainly women. Now I'm sure it's exclusively women. And the names you hear most often are all the same: there's Judge Diane Wood from the Seventh Circuit, who taught at the University of Chicago at the same time that Obama did, so she knows him; Elena Kagan, who is slated to become the solicitor general, the government's chief advocate in the Supreme Court, and who's the dean of the Harvard Law School; Sonia Sotomayor, who's a judge on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, and who also is something of a two-fer, she is also Hispanic; Jennifer Granholm, the governor of Michigan, who has also been an attorney general; and Janet Napolitano.

BLOCK: Okay, NPR's Nina Totenberg, thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.