RBG Makes First Appearance Since Latest Cancer Scare

86-year-old justice and human rights icon was awarded an honorary the degree at the University at Buffalo of the State University of New York

Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg attends a ceremony where she received a SUNY Honorary Degree from the University at Buffalo, New York, on Monday, August 26, 2019.
Jeffrey T. Barnes,AP

Liberal U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg appeared alert and in good spirits on Monday as she made her first public appearance since completing a three-week course of radiation therapy to treat pancreatic cancer. 

The 86-year-old justice, who has had several previous cancer scares, was escorted onstage but at times stood unassisted as she was awarded an honorary the degree at the University at Buffalo of the State University of New York. 

>> Read more: Female empowerment and pickled herring: How Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the Notorious RBG

Ginsburg, who received several rounds of exuberant applause from the audience, gave a short speech then spent about 30 minutes answering questions about her career posed by the dean of the university's law school, Aviva Abramovsky. Ginsburg's only reference to her health came when she noted she had decided against withdrawing from the event "when my own health problems presented challenges." 

The court announced on Friday that Ginsburg had undergone radiation therapy after a malignant tumor was identified following a biopsy performed on July 31 at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. 

A court statement said the tumor was "treated definitively" and that there was no evidence of disease elsewhere in Ginsburg's body. Ginsburg spoke on Monday of her latter-day cult status among liberals, including her nickname "Notorious RBG," which was based on the name of the late rapper Notorious BIG. 

"It was beyond my wildest imagination that I would one day become the Notorious RBG. I am now 86 years old and yet people of all ages want to take their picture with me. Amazing," she said. 

Ginsburg said the two women who inspired her as a youngster were groundbreaking aviator Amelia Earhart and the fictional teenage detective Nancy Drew. As the oldest justice, she is closely watched for any signs of deteriorating health. The court is currently in recess until October. 

Pancreatic cancer is one of the hardest cancers to treat. According to the website of the Columbia Pancreas Center at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York, the percentage of people still alive five years after a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer that has not spread beyond the pancreas is 27.1 per cent.

Ginsburg, appointed in 1993 by Democratic President Bill Clinton, had two cancerous nodules in her left lung removed last December. She was previously treated for pancreatic cancer in 2009 and colon cancer in 1999.

Ginsburg also broke three ribs in a fall last November. The nodules on her lung were found as part of the tests the justice underwent after that fall.

In January, she missed oral arguments in cases for the first time in her lengthy career on the court. She returned to the bench in February and was an active participant in the remaining oral arguments of the court term, which ended in June.

If Ginsburg, one of the nine-member court's four liberal justices, were unable to continue serving, Republican President Donald Trump could replace her with a conservative, further shifting the court to the right. Trump has added two justices since becoming president in January 2017, cementing its 5-4 conservative majority.