In a new interview with NPR, 86-year-old Supreme Court justice and three-time cancer survivor Ruth Bader Ginsburg had a familiar (and oft-repeated) message for her doubters: “I am very much alive.”
Ginsburg has said “her dream” is to remain on the Supreme Court for as long as former justice John Paul Stevens. He served on the court for 35 years before retiring in 2010, and he died at age 99 this month. RBG, as she’s known on the Internet, has served for 26 years.
Throughout her decades on the bench, Ginsburg, who survived colon cancer in 1999, pancreatic cancer in 2009 and lung cancer in 2018, has batted down calls for her retirement and even rumors of her eventual demise.
“There was a senator, I think it was after my pancreatic cancer, who announced, with great glee, that I was going to be dead within six months,” she recalled in the interview. “That senator, whose name I have forgotten, is now himself dead, and I am very much alive.” It was a burn, or as “Saturday Night Live” would say, a “Gins-burn.”
So, just who was “that senator”?
In 2009, after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and undergoing surgery, Ginsburg had to defend her place on the bench. In February of that year, Sen. Jim Bunning (Ky.) suggested during a Republican Party gathering in his home state that the liberal justice would have to be replaced sooner rather than later.
Bunning said Ginsburg had “bad cancer. The kind you don’t get better from.”
“Even though she was operated on, usually, nine months is the longest that anybody would live,” Bunning said at his party’s annual Lincoln Day Dinner.
That was on a Saturday. Ginsburg was back at work the following Monday. “First, I wanted people to see that the Supreme Court isn’t all male,” Ginsburg told USA Today at the time. “I also wanted them to see I was alive and well, contrary to that senator who said I’d be dead within nine months.”
Bunning offered a mea culpa almost immediately. “I apologize if my comments offended Justice Ginsburg,” Bunning said in a statement at the time. “That certainly was not my intent.”
A baseball Hall of Famer, Bunning retired from the Senate in 2010 and died in 2017 after suffering a stroke at the age of 85.
In her NPR interview, Ginsburg said it was the work that “saved” her.
“So I had to get past whatever my aches and pains were just to do the job,” she added.