Ruth Bader Ginsburg was just treated for a pancreatic tumor, a type of cancer that spreads quickly and is hard to detect

Julia Naftulin
Ruth Bader Ginsburg

REUTERS/Mario Anzuon


  • Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg underwent radiation therapy for a tumor in her pancreas, according to Kathy Arberg, a court spokeswoman.
  • Arberg said Ginsberg is doing well and "maintained an active schedule" following the treatment.
  • Pancreatic cancer typically spreads quickly and is often difficult to detect unless a person has a family history and is tested regularly.
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Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently underwent radiation therapy for a cancerous tumor in her pancreas, court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said in a statement on Friday. Doctors first noticed the cancerous tumor during a July 31 biopsy.

Arberg said 86-year-old Ginsberg did well throughout the treatment and "maintained an active schedule" following it. The court also said Ginsburg's tumor was "treated definitively and there is no evidence of disease elsewhere in the body."

Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect

In December 2018, Ginsburg had surgery for lung cancer. She also had colorectal cancer in 1999 and pancreatic cancer in 2009. As such, her doctors may have been on the lookout for recurrences and so may have been able to catch and treat the disease early, though the court didn't provide those details.  

Catching pancreatic cancer early is important because, according to the Mayo Clinic, the disease typically spreads quickly to other organs once it develops in the pancreas, an organ that produces the blood sugar-regulating hormone insulin and enzymes that help break down food in the body.

Making pancreatic cancer more dangerous, it's rarely detected in its early stages. Only if a person has a history of pancreatic cysts or a family history of pancreatic cancer is the cancer found early on, since these people are recommended to do regular screenings for the disease. RBG may have been one of these people. 

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Symptoms of pancreatic cancer include fatigue, upper abdomen pain, depression, loss of appetite, sudden development of diabetes, and jaundice, according to the Mayo Clinic. Tissue samples, blood tests, and imaging scans like MRIs and PET scans are all tools a doctor can use to diagnose someone with pancreatic cancer.

There are various types of pancreatic tumors and treatment options

The court didn't specify the type of tumor Ginsburg had, but there are various types that require different treatments. The most common tumor is a pancreatic adenocarcinoma, according to the American Cancer Society, and 95% of pancreatic cancer cases stem from this type of tumor, which develops in the pancreas ducts.

The other less common cancerous pancreatic tumors are: adenosquamous carcinomas, squamous cell carcinomas, signet ring cell carcinomas, undifferentiated carcinomas, and undifferentiated carcinomas with giant cells.

There are also benign pancreatic tumors that don't cause cancer and other benign tumors that if left untreated, can eventually develop into cancer.

The spokesperson said Ginsburg underwent radiation therapy, which involves zapping cancer cells with high-energy beams to kill them, but there are other ways to treat pancreatic cancer. Chemotherapy is often used in conjunction with radiation and uses drugs to kill cancer cells, and surgery can also be used to physically remove tumors from the pancreas and prevent them from spreading to other areas of the body.

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