Recent Broward Law Blog Features

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Human Side of Judge Ginsburg's Cancer

As I go to post this article, I shared it with a friend whose own wife has just recovered from cancer. And I was informed, sadly, unexpectedly, that the Broward legal community, which has suffered so many losses these past six months, has just lost another friend and partner, with the passing of Ron Dallas today. Condolences to his family and colleagues, friends and peers.

The Human Side of Judge Ginsburg's Cancer

By Norm Kent

You have read all the articles, and they tell you that the Brooklyn, New York born Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a major figure in the women’s rights movement prior to her ascension to the highest court of the United States of America.

The late solicitor general of the United States, one time Harvard Law School dean, Erwin Griswold, once called Justice Ginsburg the “Thurgood Marshall of gender-equity law.”

Let me tell you that today, Ruth Ginsburg, is thinking of neither of those things. She is thinking about staying alive. To others, she seems groggy, dazed, and hooked up to a thousand tubes in an Intensive Care Unit at a hospital somewhere. But she is in fact soberly aware and conscious of her challenging circumstances. If anything, this fiercely independent woman is troubled mostly by the fact that she has become dependent upon the service of others.

Today, Justice Ginsburg is not thinking of the next case, the next year, or the judicial calendar ahead. She is thinking of her family, her friends, and how the fight in her heart is going to beat the cancer in her pancreas.

It is not the first time Justice Ginsburg has had cancer. In her heart of hearts, she has no idea why she survived in 1999 when so many others since have not. You think of the quote, “There but for the grace of god go I,” but truly, you have no explanation as to why you are a survivor.

My friend, former Sun-Sentinel columnist, Ray Reechi, and I, used to sit next to each other at Miami Dolphins games. About ten years ago, we each found out we had cancer. Months later, he was gone. Ten years later, I am alive. I have no idea why. He had a big heart, life, spirit and a loving family too. Fate has no favorites.

Faced with death, you look at the past, and you reflect on the life you have lived. You find satisfaction in where you are and where you have been, but it is an individual card catalogue of your own soul. You do not consume yourself with what historians may write or what others may say. You cannot expend energy on things beyond your control. You only resolve to move forward, thinking more of the next time the nurse will wake you with a pill in the middle of the night than a client will call you in a panic about a court date they missed

Sitting up in her hospital bed, Justice Ginsburg will recall her last experience with colorectal cancer in 1999. She will remember her remarks that “there is nothing like a cancer bout to make one relish the joys of being alive.” But she will not relish the new incursions upon her life.

Those eight months of chemotherapy mean endless trips to hospitals, radiologists, and lonely MRI rooms where they line you up flat on your back, wearing nothing but a hospital gown, so as to transport you, in solitary, under long steel tubes which shout out very loud noises while you lie there helplessly. And you say to yourself, “Oh, please, not this again.”

The journalists will get quotes from the pancreatic cancer experts advising how serious this particular form of cancer is; how it rages relentlessly and overtakes you swiftly. Justice Ginsburg will simply ask for a cup of hot tea, and greet her next guess with a smile, promising that she has no intention of giving in. Nor will she. Instead, Ms. Ginsburg will ask about the weather outside, her family at home, her colleagues on the court.

Hooked up to IV drips which are keeping her alive, she will nevertheless, like every patient in a hospital room, hear from her friends about their maladies; how they also have something wrong with them. You are hooked up to life support listening to people tell you about their bad sciatica.

Justice Ginsburg will be polite with the many friends that come by from the court, from Cornell, or Harvard. They will chit-chat about her caseload, a dinner they shared, or a fond memory forever etched in their minds. But they will leave and all she will want is to be left alone, to gather her strength, to find some energy, to overcome the exhaustion that steals her breaths away. She knows the phone calls are well meaning, but they are too tiring to tell the same story again and again. Just let her sleep.

Today, a great American, proud justice, and a leading feminist lies ill in a hospital. Commentators speculate on her replacement. Journalists write about her life. Scholars debate her legacy. Professors discuss her decisions. All Justice Ginsburg wants is some orange juice and a chance to go home again. That is all any of us can wish for.


  1. Norm,
    Insightful stuff.
    Keep up the good work,

  2. Good article, Norm.