Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fall that resulted in three fractured ribs may have actually been a good thing in the long run, NBC News is reporting. Ginsburg was already fragile at 85-years-old, having survived both colon and pancreatic cancer, and having heart stent surgery four years ago, when she fell in her office on November 7. If that weren’t enough, she underwent a procedure on December 21 to remove two cancerous growths from her left lung.
Lung cancer is a very serious form of cancer, but the procedure she had — a pulmonary lobectomy — has a high success rate if the cancer is caught early on. Some doctors are theorizing that Ginsburg was made aware of the cancer and was able to undergo surgery as soon as possible due to the cancer being detected when she was in the hospital for her rib-breaking fall.
“Unfortunately, lung cancer is usually caught in an advanced stage after it shows symptoms, after it has already spread to the lymph nodes and elsewhere, and by then it’s only curable in a small minority of cases,” said Dr. John Heymach, chairman of thoracic, head and neck Medical Oncology at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. “It’s possible, without knowing the specifics of her case, that early detection because of those broken ribs saved her life.”
According to an official statement from the Supreme Court, Ginsburg’s surgery was successful and “there was no evidence of any remaining disease” following the procedure. People are assuming that Ginsburg’s hospital stay due to her broken ribs helped catch the cancer early because normally, the lung doesn’t experience any pain until the tumor is significant and therefore more difficult to treat.
“When it gets big enough that it’s impinging on a big breathing pipe, then you start coughing; if it starts bleeding then you start coughing up blood; if it gets big enough to touch the chest wall, then you develop chest pain,” explained Dr. Renato Martins, the medical director for thoracic/head and neck oncology at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. “But until then a tumor can be three, four, five centimeters, and it can have very little symptoms.”
Dr. Raja Flores, chair of thoracic surgery at Mount Sinai Health System in New York, shared that a majority of the time, cancer is found when patients are being examined for an unrelated issue. CT scans for lung cancers are not usually conducted unless there is a higher chance of the patient having it, such as a history of smoking.
“The majority of these cases are just not identified through screening, except for serendipity,” said Flores.
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