Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Remarks for Women's Health Research Dinner - May 7, 2001

Ruth Bader Ginsburg
May 07, 2001
Women's Health Research Dinner
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When I first learned of the Society for Women's Health Research and its effort to put women on the map of medical studies, I was reminded of a conversation I overheard at a meeting of the Association of American Law Schools in the early 1970s. A group of leading law teachers were speculating about the changes that might occur with women beginning to enter law school in numbers, not just as a few-at-a-time curiosities. After initial expressions of uncertainty not characteristic of brothers in law, one prominent professor said: "Not to worry. What were women lawyers after all, only soft men."

That was the prevailing view in the medical profession too. If I understand the situation correctly, researchers tended to view men as the norm or the standard, and to ignore, downplay, or underreport sex differences. The concerted efforts of the Society are hastening the day when women will be studied equally and as women, not neglected or written off as soft men. That is cause to applaud.

I have been asked to say just a few words to you about my bout with colorectal cancer, which began in the summer of 1999. It is the first time I have talked in public about something so personal. I have four thoughts to share with you.

First, if you are a woman at or near what the French call a certain age, have a colonoscopy. Many women, myself included, are religious about having periodic PAP tests and mammograms. But we tend to think of colon and rectal cancers as men's diseases. They do not pass over women, I now know all too well, and early detection can make a huge difference to survival prospects. Also, if anyone here had such an examination years ago and found it particularly unpleasant, as I did when I had a first colonoscopy in the 1980s, I can assure you it is less awful as currently administered.

My second thought. Cancer is a dreadful disease. The surgery, and what I call the post-operative insurance course (chemotherapy and radiation), are not easy to bear physically and can generate large anxiety. But there are so many survivors in modern times who can take you through the treatment progression. A Deputy Clerk at the Supreme Court had undergone the treatment a year or so before I did. He spoke to me at intervals, not dousing me with too much at the start, but telling me just what I needed to know at each stage. Honest previews can make the experience less intimidating. And the support and encouragement of others buoy one's spirits. I received many letters from people cross the country last year. My favorites ran like this: "I had colon cancer 15 years ago and am feeling altogether fine."

Third on my list. Medical science has made enormous progress since my husband had cancer in 1958. In those days, the word chemotherapy was not yet heard. Even so, part of the treatment seemed to me more art than science. And one must make choices. In my case, one choice was whether to undergo daily radiation, coupled with a simultaneous chemotherapy infusion for six weeks. Did I need all or any of it or did I not? What were the ups and downs, the pluses and minuses short and long term? The doctors I consulted were not of one mind. Much as I wished I could have been given a crisp right answer, ultimately I had to decide. It helped to be fully informed before I did so.

On information, the Society has published an attention-engaging pamphlet reporting that colorectal cancer strikes women nearly as often as men; indeed, it is the third leading cause of cancer death in women. And it is insidious: Colorectal cancer, the pamphlet warns, often begins and lingers without symptoms. But, the Society underscores as do I, it is preventable by having polyps removed during periodic colonoscopies, giving them no chance to turn cancerous. And if detected sooner rather than later, colorectal cancer is curable.

My final thought: There is nothing like a cancer bout to make one relish the joys of being alive. It is as though a special, zestful spice seasons my work and days. Each thing I do comes with a heightened appreciation that I am able to do it.

My cheers to the Society and all who contribute to its endeavors and well being.

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