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What Ruth Bader Ginsburg's lung surgery means

Ruth Bader Ginsburg recovering after surgery
Ruth Bader Ginsburg's lung surgery is her 3rd cancer treatment since 1999 02:39

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is said to be "resting comfortably" after surgery at a New York City hospital to remove two cancerous nodules from her lung. It was not her first time dealing cancer, and the news prompted many questions about the 85-year-old justice's well-being.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the U.S. Supreme Court said the two nodules in Ginsburg's lower left lung were discovered while she was being treated for rib fractures she sustained in a fall on November 7. 

The statement said the growths were removed and there was "no evidence of remaining disease" and "no evidence of disease elsewhere in the body" after the procedure. 

"Justice Ginsburg is resting comfortably and is expected to remain in the hospital for a few days," the statement reads. "Updates will be provided as they become available."

She underwent a procedure called a lobectomy at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to remove the growths in her lung, which were found to be malignant.

What is a lobectomy?

Dr. Raja Flores, chair of thoracic surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, said a lobectomy is a major — but common — surgery. His practice does hundreds of these procedures each year.

A lobectomy involves removing a lobe of the lung. There are five lobes in the lungs, three on the right and two on the left, Flores explained. Ginsburg had her lower left lobe removed.

Flores, who was not involved in Ginsburg's treatment, said her quality of life should not diminish because of a missing lobe.

"I've had patients run marathons after lobectomy," he told CBS News. He predicts Ginsburg will be able to "live normally" and "won't miss that part of the lung."

Ginsburg's history of cancer

Ginsburg has survived cancer twice before: colon cancer in 1999 and pancreatic cancer a decade years later.

Her pancreatic cancer was caught very early and removed successfully in 2009. She was treated for colon cancer in 1999 with a combination of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.

Because of this history, Flores said it's likely that slow-moving cancer cells from one of those cases spread to her lungs. As Ginsburg does not have a history of smoking, he said a lung cancer diagnosis was unlikely.

Pathology tests, which he said are typically complete within a couple of weeks after the procedure, will determine where the cancer came from.

An optimistic prognosis

Recovery after a lobectomy typically requires three to six days in the hospital. Flores said patients typically return to their everyday activities, including work, in about six weeks, though at 85, there's a chance Ginsburg's age might delay that timetable.

However, her notoriously vigorous workout routine will likely be beneficial to a faster recovery, he said.

While Flores said the full pathology report is needed for a clearer picture of Ginsburg's health, if she continues to be free of cancer, her "prognosis would be excellent," he said. "I don't see her checking out any time."

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