Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last week at the age of 87, is rightfully being memorialized as a “feminist icon,” a “history-making jurist,” and as “Notorious RBG,” a pop culture legend. One more huzzah should be added to the list: cancer survivor.
Ginsburg was first diagnosed with colon cancer two decades ago, and over a period of more than 20 years beat it back. She also had bouts with pancreatic and lung cancer. It actually wasn’t that long ago that people diagnosed with cancer — people like Ginsburg, me, and the more than 16 million Americans currently living with cancer — were called “cancer victims.” We were expected to hide in shame, and too often faced discrimination in the workplace and, of course, by health insurers who viewed us as either too risky or too expensive to provide coverage.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg proved to be as much of a trailblazer for people living with cancer as she did for women, minorities, and free speech, among the many hot-button causes and cases she heard during her quarter-century on the high court.
“RBG encompasses the true definition of a cancer survivor,” Dr. Anne Blaes, director, Cancer Survivorship Services and Translational Research, Masonic Cancer Center at the University of Minnesota, emphasized to me this week. “From the time of her diagnosis, she continued to live with her cancer, rarely missing a day of work. She bravely went through multiple surgeries, hospitalizations, and treatments over the course of two decades. She continued to live and work on the bench during that time.”
These days, thanks to improved treatments that have extended both quality of life and longevity for many people with cancer, the notion of a cancer victim is almost obsolete. According to the National Cancer Institute, a person is considered to be a cancer survivor from the time of diagnosis until the end of life. “Part of cancer survivorship, for many like RBG,” said Dr. Blaes, “encompasses going through surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy while living well, living with the effects of treatment, the effects of cancer, the uncertainty of recurrence and progressive disease.” Ginsburg perfectly demonstrated to all of us what it means to be a cancer survivor.
In 1999, Ginsburg, then 66, was diagnosed with colon cancer and successfully treated for it. A decade later came a new diagnosis, pancreatic cancer, discovered early because the jurist was still undergoing regular screening because of her first cancer. In 2018, two tumors were surgically removed from her lungs, and then last year a new malignancy was discovered on her pancreas.
Throughout all the surgeries, not to forget the many chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Ginsburg lived and worked as many Americans — especially cancer survivors — kept her close to their hearts.
In an obituary broadcast on NPR, journalist Nina Totenberg remembered Ginsburg as a friend and professional source who kept her promises.
Not long after Ginsburg’s radiation treatments for colon cancer, the justice suffered a blockage in her colon, putting her in the hospital the night before Totenberg’s 2000 wedding. “But as I would learn, a commitment from RBG was about as ironclad a thing as you could get,” Totenberg remembered. “‘This was your wedding eve, and I was not about to let you be worried,’ she told me later. In true fashion, she was there, stayed through the dinner, and quietly asked me if it would be OK if she left a little early.”
When it came to her life on the bench, Ginsburg was as much of a stalwart. In 2009, when diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the diminutive giant finished the draft of a speech on the flight to New York for her surgery; it would be delivered by someone else. Ten days after that surgery, Ginsburg was front and center at President Barack Obama’s first State of the Union speech. “And, truthfully, she looked like she had a grand time,” recalls Totenberg.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg inspired us how to live a life full of meaning, connection, and love in the shadow of cancer. And she had a grand time. When we remember Justice Ginsburg in the years to come, let’s not forget to add “cancer survivor” to those achievements.
Steven Petrow is a columnist for USA Today, a contributing writer to the Washington Post, a past president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, and author of several books.