Ruth Bader Ginsburg (March 15, 1933-Sept. 18, 2020): Tribute to a brave cancer warrior

Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg stands during the National Anthem at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) naturalization ceremony at the New York Historical Society Museum and Library in Manhattan, New York, U.S., April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

With the daily tributes in the US media pouring in at a scale unmatched in recent history, describing the iconic Ginsburg as a pioneer, trail-blazer and a warrior who fought battles against gender discrimination, both personal, societal and legal, there is virtually nothing left to add to this. What I would like to focus herein is as to how she was able to achieve all that she did, in the midst of her battles on the most challenging front–the three types of cancer, since her colon cancer was first detected in 1999, at age 66.

Ginsburg was all too familiar with the pain a cancer-patient goes through, and with the coping skills needed for being a care-giver to a cancer-stricken family member. Her mother was diagnosed with cancer, while she was a teenager, dying the day before her high school graduation, and her husband Marty had cancer, soon after the birth of their daughter, while they were both studying law at Harvard. Ginsburg attended classes, took notes for both of them, typed her husband’s papers dictated by him, and cared for their daughter and her husband, with as she said barely getting 2 hours of sleep, and yes in the midst of it all made it to the Harvard Law Review. Her therapy for decompressing as she says—was caring for and playing with her infant Jane, and then “after her bed time I returned to the law books with renewed will. Each part of my life provided respite from the other….”[Her autobiography, “My own Words.”].

So, in 1999, when Ginsburg herself was stricken with colon cancer, she had the mental preparation to cope with it; she underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, and it is said that during this entire process, she did not miss a day in office. For those of us not too familiar with the debilitating after effects of this therapy, I would urge you to read oncologist and Rhodes Scholar, Dr.(MD and D. Litt) Siddhartha Mukherjee’s 2011 Pulitzer Prize book “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,”and for a 1 page Capsule, log into Mayo Clinic. Ginsburg hence started to focus on building up her physical strength –given her barely 5 foot, 100 lbs+, frail stature — with a personal trainer, Bryant Johnson, twice a week, at the Court Gym. It is said she was able to complete 20 push-ups in a session before her 80th birthday. Boy, what a feat, a supreme example of discipline of the mind and body!


In1980, even as she was barely recovering, she was nominated by Carter to a seat on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and later in in 1993 as a justice to the US Supreme Court, by Clinton. Till 2009, with her strict physical regimen, she continued to acquit her official responsibilities with an uncommon dedication, when on February 13 of that year she underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer, for a tumor discovered at an early stage. On February 23, she was ready to return to the bench when the Supreme Court went back into session. On June 27, 2010, her husband Marty, the love of her life, and her ardent supporter—described as a world-class, brilliant tax Attorney, who gave up his lucrative law practice in NYC, and moved to DC to be with her –succumbed to his cancer. Ginsburg is said to have returned to her office the next day, in keeping with her motto of “work being the best therapy.” Ginsburg was also known for her passion for the theater, music and Opera, which she also viewed as therapeutic for her, helping her unwind after a hard day’s work in office. In 2016, she she agreed to do a speaking role of Duchess of Krakenthorp in Washington National Opera’s production of Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment.

During the presidency of Obama, some liberal attorneys and activists urged Ginsburg to retire—given her age and health issues– so Obama could appoint a liberal successor, while the Democratic Party still held control of the Senate, which they were to lose in 2014. Ginsburg rejected this summarily, affirming her resolve to remain a justice as long as she was “mentally sharp enough to perform her duties” which she, true to herself remained until her death at 87.

On November 2014, following discomfort while exercising in the Court gym, she had a stent placed in her right coronary artery. On November 8, 2018, Ginsburg fell in her office, fracturing three ribs, for which she was hospitalized, and in her characteristic Ginsburg work-style of bouncing back, she returned to official work after a day of observation. However, a CT scan of her ribs had revealed cancerous nodules in her lungs, and December 21, Ginsburg underwent a left-lung lobectomy at the Sloan Kettering to remove the nodules. It is said that for the first time since joining the Court in 1999, Ginsburg missed an oral argument on January 7, 2019 while she was recuperating under medical advice. In the summer of 2019, her pancreatic cancer–said to be the deadliest and most insidious, metastatic forms of cancer—recurred when a tumor was found therein and in August she underwent three weeks of focused radiation treatment, at age 86, which even first-time cancer survivors would dread. By January 2020, the ever-optimistic Ginsburg was told she was cancer-free, but by May 2020, Ginsburg resumed treatment for a recurrence of this cancer, and by July as per Dr Sanjay Gupta at CNN, it was clear that this cancer could not be cured, and when asked further he said “It’s a tough therapy for anyone to go through.” That by then Ginsburg had a premonition of her impending death was evident in the note she dictated to her grand daughter: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”

So this is the story of a cancer warrior who continued working unto the end like a true “Karma-Yogi,” and who battled her 3 cancers over the years with unusual courage and an unlimited reservoir of inner strength, which would probably defy medical logic, and most likely set a record—as she always did–in the chronicles of medical history, such as those compiled by oncologists like Dr. Mukherjee. May her soul Rest in Power, as many tributes to her are saying.

Nisha Sahai Achuthan, PhD, is a retired Indian Administrative Service offider and currently a New York-based Consultant on Security issues, Sustainable Development and the Performing Arts.



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