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Dec. 21, 2018 -- U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had surgery today at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City to remove cancer from her left lung. The cancerous nodules on the lower lobe of the lung were discovered by chance after she had tests to diagnose and treat ribs she broke in a fall on November 7.

“This is what you call a serendipitous pickup,” says Len Horovitz, MD, a pulmonologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “It’s not unusual to have something picked up on a chest X-ray taken for another reason, such as a fall.” Horovitz, a lung expert, is not involved in Ginsburg’s care.

Tests found that both nodules removed during surgery were cancerous, says thoracic surgeon Valerie W. Rusch, MD. But there was no evidence of any other cancer in her lungs after the nodules were removed. Before the surgery, scans showed no signs of cancer anywhere else. No further treatment is planned.

This is not the 85-year-old’s first bout with cancer. She had a small, early-stage pancreatic tumor removed in 2009. Ten years earlier, the justice was treated for a small, early-stage colon tumor. Like the malignant lung nodules, both previous cancers were discovered by chance and had not spread elsewhere in the body.

“It’s not clear whether [the lung cancer] is a primary cancer or one that has spread from another place. Colon cancer doesn’t generally spread to the lungs. Pancreatic cancer can spread virtually anywhere,” says Horovitz. “If these nodules were a primary lung cancer limited to that lobe, we can hope that this [surgery] was a cure.”

Ginsburg is known for returning to work quickly after injuries and surgeries. She did not miss a day of work after breaking two ribs in 2012. She returned to work quickly after a heart procedure that same year.

Ginsburg is resting comfortably and is expected to remain in the hospital for a few days, according to a statement from the Supreme Court.

“She will need to be monitored closely for the appearance of any other nodules,” says Horovitz. “But we certainly hope that will not be the case.”

HealthDay News contributed to this article.

Show Sources

News release, Supreme Court of the United States, Dec. 21, 2018.

News release, Supreme Court of the United States, Feb. 13, 2009.

The New York Times: “Ginsburg Leaves Hospital; Prognosis on Cancer Is Good.”

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