U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg participates in a discussion at Georgetown University Law Center July 2, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong—Getty Images
August 31, 2019

(Bloomberg) — U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said she’s “on my way to being very well” after her latest bout with cancer, telling a crowd of thousands that her work had sustained her through previous health scares.

Answering questions on stage at the National Book Festival in Washington on Saturday, the 86-year-old progressive joked that “the audience can see that I am alive.”

It was the first time Ginsburg had directly discussed her condition in public after her fourth and most recent bout with cancer, a pancreatic tumor that the court said Aug. 23 had been successfully treated with a three-week course of radiation.

Despite the cancer, Ginsburg is maintaining a brisk public schedule during the Supreme Court’s annual July-through-September recess. She spoke in Buffalo, New York, earlier this week and is scheduled to appear in September in Little Rock, Arkansas; Chicago; and Raleigh, North Carolina. The Supreme Court will formally open its nine-month term on Oct. 7.

Ginsburg said Saturday her work on the court had always sustained her during her health crises. “It has kept me going through four cancer bouts,” she said. “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, and so I have to somehow surmount whatever is going on in my body and concentrate on the court’s work.”

Ginsburg was energetic during hour-long session, though she received assistance as she climbed the stairs to the stage and made her way to her chair.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly forms of the disease. Only 34% of patients diagnosed at an early stage are alive five years later, according to the American Cancer Society. But the court said Ginsburg’s tumor was confined to her pancreas, something that should improve her survival odds.

While surgery often follows to remove pancreatic tumors, the court said Ginsburg didn’t need additional treatment beyond the radiation.

Ginsburg survived early-stage pancreatic cancer once before, in 2009. She was also treated for colon cancer in 1999, and she underwent lung surgery to remove two cancerous growths in 2018.

The latest treatment involved doctors inserting a stent into her bile duct, a procedure that’s done to allow bile to drain from the liver after a growth has started to crimp the tube shut.

A departure by Ginsburg — or 81-year-old Justice Stephen Breyer — would clear the way for President Donald Trump to make his third appointment to the Supreme Court. That could be a crucial change on such issues as abortion, gay rights, gun control, immigration and Obamacare.

Ginsburg has repeatedly said she plans to stay on the court as long as she can do the job “full steam.”

The discussion Saturday was designed to focus on the best-selling “My Own Words,” a compilation of Ginsburg’s writings, which was published in hardcover in 2016 and as a paperback a year ago.

The interview, by NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg, touched on the court’s work, lawyers’ occasional confusion of Ginsburg with retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor during court arguments, and Ginsburg’s status as a liberal icon who’s crossed over into pop-culture fame.

Ginsburg said she recently received a phone call from Jennifer Lopez, who wanted to meet the justice. Ginsburg said she later hosted the actress and her fiancée, former Major League Baseball star Alex Rodriguez, in her Supreme Court chambers.

“She mostly wanted to ask if I had any secret about a happy marriage,” said Ginsburg, whose husband, Marty, died in 2010. The pair married in 1954.

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