Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Health Scares and Recoveries, from Surviving Cancer to Fracturing Her Ribs

The Supreme Court justice said this week: "I have often said I would remain a member of the Court as long as I can do the job full steam"

Mark Wilson/Getty. Photo: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has a long history of health struggles — and overcoming them.

Most recently, 87-year-old associate Supreme Court justice announced on Friday that she is being treated for a recurrence of cancer in her liver.

"On May 19, I began a course of chemotherapy (gemcitabine) to treat a recurrence of cancer. A periodic scan in February followed by a biopsy revealed lesions on my liver," she said in a Friday statement, adding that her recent hospitalizations to remove gall stones and treat an infection were unrelated to the cancer.

After immunotherapy "proved unsuccessful," Ginsburg began a bi-weekly course of chemotherapy that "is yielding positive results," she said. Throughout her treatment, she has been able to keep up with all court work.

"I have often said I would remain a member of the Court as long as I can do the job full steam," Ginsburg said in the statement. "I remain fully able to do that."

Here’s a look back at Ginsburg’s health challenges and recoveries through the years.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Jeffrey T Barnes/AP/Shutterstock

First Cancer Diagnosis

Less than a decade after she was appointed to the Supreme Court, in 1993, Ginsburg was hospitalized for colon cancer in September 1999.

She first became ill over the summer, although doctors did not detect the cancer at the time, according to The New York Times. While undergoing treatment for an unrelated abdominal infection in September, doctors discovered a small tumor in her colon and she underwent surgery on Sept. 17.

Continuing to work while hospitalized, less than two weeks after her surgery, the then-66-year-old justice was sent home. She did not miss a single day on the bench, the Times reported.

After her colon cancer treatment, she first began working with a personal trainer in order to regain her strength, according to the Washington Post.

Cancer Returns

Almost a decade after her initial bout with cancer, Ginsburg was diagnosed with the disease again — in her pancreas.

During a routine medical checkup in January, doctors discovered a small tumor on her pancreas, the Supreme Court announced that February, when she underwent surgery.

Ginsburg, who was then the court’s sole female justice, returned to work less than three weeks later.

Ruth bader Ginsburg. Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty

Heart Surgery

After experiencing some chest pain during a 2014 workout, in November of that year Ginsburg underwent surgery to put a stent in her right coronary artery. She was then 81.

She is resting comfortably and is expected to be discharged in the next 48 hours,” the court wrote in a statement at the time.

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Fractured Ribs

In November 2018, the judge was hospitalized again after fracturing three ribs.

“Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg fell in her office at the Court last evening,” the Supreme Court said in a statement. “She went home, but after experiencing discomfort overnight, went to George Washington University Hospital early this morning.”

She was released from the hospital the following day.

Ginsburg previously hurt two ribs during a fall in June 2012 and continued to work despite her injury.

Third Bout with Cancer

In 2018, just weeks after her November hospitalization, Ginsburg was back in the hospital to have two malignant modules removed from her left lung.

“Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg underwent a pulmonary lobectomy today at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City,” a court statement said then. “Two nodules in the lower lobe of her left lung were discovered incidentally during tests performed at George Washington University Hospital to diagnose and treat rib fractures sustained in a fall on November 7.”

After the surgery, it was determined there was “no evidence” of “any remaining disease, according to the court.

“Scans performed before surgery indicated no evidence of disease elsewhere in the body. Currently, no further treatment is planned. Justice Ginsburg is resting comfortably and is expected to remain in the hospital for a few days.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Pancreatic Cancer Returns

In August 2019 it was announced that Ginsburg had finished a three-week course of radiation therapy for a localized malignant tumor on her pancreas.

The treatment marked the second time in a year Ginsburg had cancer — and the second time she had pancreatic cancer.

Ginsburg’s treatment for the tumor on her pancreas began on Aug. 5, days after it was discovered, according to the Supreme Court.

“She canceled her annual summer visit to Santa Fe, but has otherwise maintained an active schedule. The tumor was treated definitively and there is no evidence of disease elsewhere in the body. Justice Ginsburg will continue to have periodic blood tests and scans. No further treatment is needed at this time,” a court’s statement read.

Just over a week after the announcement was made, Ginsburg spoke at the 2019 Library of Congress National Book Festival, assuring the crowd that she was “on my way to being very well.”

“I love my job. It’s the best and the hardest job that I have ever had. It’s kept me going through four cancer battles,” Ginsburg continued, according to CNN. “Instead of concentrating on my aches and pains, I just know that I have to read this set of briefs, go over the draft opinion.”

In January 2020, she went on to tell CNN that she was “cancer free.”

Hospitalized for Fever and Chills

In November 2019, Ginsburg was in the hospital after experiencing chills and a fever.

According to the Supreme Court, she was treated with intravenous antibiotics and fluids and her symptoms then abated.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Eugene Gologursky/Getty

Gallbladder Complication

Ginsberg was hospitalized in May for a gallbladder condition. The health scare came just months after the cancer survivor revealed in January that she was again "cancer-free."

In a statement at the time, the Supreme Court said Ginsburg "underwent non-surgical treatment for acute cholecystitis, a benign gallbladder condition," following the conclusion of oral arguments the previous day.

“She was suffering from a gallstone that had migrated to her cystic duct, blocking it and causing an infection," the court said.

She was discharged from the hospital the following day. “She is doing well and glad to be home," read a statement from the court, adding that in the coming weeks, she will return for “follow-up outpatient visits.”

Hospitalized for Infection

In July, two months after receiving treatment for the benign gallbladder condition, Ginsburg was admitted to the hospital to treat an infection.

She remained in the hospital for a few days to receive intravenous antibiotic treatment, according to a press release from the Supreme Court.

"Justice Ginsburg was admitted to The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland early this morning for treatment of a possible infection. She was initially evaluated at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C. last night after experiencing fever and chills," the Tuesday release stated. "She underwent an endoscopic procedure at Johns Hopkins this afternoon to clean out a bile duct stent that was placed last August."

The court added then that Ginsburg was "resting comfortably" as she sought treatment.

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