Justice Ginsburg inspires facing up to cancer diagnosis

Gail Appleson is the senior writer at The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital and a freelance journalist. Prior to joining the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2005, she was a news reporter in New York City, where she served as Reuters’ national legal correspondent for 20 years.

By Gail Appleson

Shortly before taking the oath as an associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke at a program honoring women at the 1993 American Bar Association annual meeting.  I was a news reporter covering the event for Reuters and lucky enough to land an interview with her.

Justice Ginsburg had easily won confirmation just days before, so I wondered how she felt in this whirlwind of excitement.  She asked if I had seen the movie “Orlando.” The 1992 film traces the life of a young British nobleman who lives through four centuries, remaining the same person inside but taking on new identities including becoming a woman. Ginsburg said she was the same person she had always been but was being treated differently because of her new circumstances. 

Her analogy came to mind recently when a friend confided she has breast cancer and would soon be undergoing a mastectomy. I was shocked by her news because she had been her usual upbeat, outgoing self over the last few months, giving no clue about suffering weeks of agonizing tests and the frightening diagnosis.

She said she had purposely kept the bad news to herself, hoping to be treated normally instead of being pitied or seen as someone other than herself.  But then she realized that her “secret” had started to take control of her life and wanted to make that stop.   So she began telling friends and found great relief from getting her cancer diagnosis out in the open.  

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Her revelation hit home because I, too, have cancer and told few people for similar reasons. I’m lucky, though, because I have a blood cancer that’s about as benign as it gets. There’s no way you’d know by looking at me.   I take one chemo drug capsule orally every day, but I don’t get infusions and I’m spared radiation and surgery.

My diagnosis came as a complete surprise as I had no symptoms and felt great. The problem was detected as part of a routine, annual exam. In fact, I received the diagnosis just as I was about to start a new job. Among my fears was that my new colleagues’ perception of me would change if they knew my secret. I worried they would think that I had changed from the capable, experienced journalist described in my resume into someone who was chronically ill and unable to handle the challenges of my new position.

With the passage of time and some deep soul searching, I’ve grown to realize that I’m no longer worried about how others view me because of my illness.  Instead, the most terrifying monster in this situation is really just me. The ugly truth is that I’m afraid of how I will come to view myself. 

You see, my cancer is a genetic mutation linked to aging. By recognizing it, I feel like I’m admitting that I’m growing older and more vulnerable. This contradicts my long-held view that I’m unstoppable, no matter what road blocks I hit, I’ll find another way, that I can keep reinventing myself ad infinitum.  Now, I’m worried about losing my self-confidence, determination and drive…of becoming a stranger who’s so very different than the person I know as me.   

So I’ve looked to my hero, Justice Ginsburg, a.k.a. the “Notorious RBG,” for inspiration.  At age 85, she’s never let her age or bouts of life-threatening pancreatic and colorectal cancer destroy her courage, force her off the nation’s top court or stop her from fighting for what is right.

I searched the internet for comments she made about overcoming these challenges and found a transcript of a lecture she delivered at Stanford University last year. Afterwards, a student asked her if any of the ways in which she approached adversity in her professional career helped her in combatting her battles with cancer.

“Never have a defeatist attitude,” she replied adding that when she had pancreatic cancer her model was the great mezzo-soprano, Marilyn Horne. 

“When she was diagnosed with that often-deadly disease, she said, ‘I will live.’ Not that I hope to live. So that was my attitude, too. I was going to beat this…The attitude is, I’m going to surmount this, whatever it is.“ 

What’s the lesson here? Regardless of age and circumstances, Justice Ginsburg is still the same person she’s always been. And if I follow her lead, I can stay myself, too.