Keeping a watch on cancer and the court
Chief Justice William Rehnquist has thyroid cancer. While the common types of this disease are often treatable, a more rare variation, technically labeled anaplastic type, is far more aggressive and life threatening. Neither Rehnquist nor his doctors are disclosing the details about his diagnosis.
What is known is that Rehnquist had a tracheotomy to assist his breathing and is undergoing both radiation treatments and chemotherapy. It's not clear whether or not he has had surgery. According to Joshua Ellenhorn, a surgical oncologist and head and neck surgeon at the City of Hope Cancer Center in Duarte, Calif., this course of treatment would suggest "a rather aggressive tumor." Ellenhorn is not treating Rehnquist.
No cure. With the more serious anaplastic form of thyroid cancer, surgery is often not curative. By the time the cancer is diagnosed--symptoms include difficulty breathing and hoarseness--it has usually already spread, according to Richard Robbins, chief of endocrinology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. And unlike other forms of the disease, it can't be treated with radioactive iodine but requires external radiation and sometimes chemo, says Robbins. Robbins also is not involved with Rehnquist's care.
If Rehnquist does have anaplastic thyroid cancer, the outlook is grim. A cure is rare unless it's caught early, and the five-year survival rate for that form of the disease is less than 2 percent. -Katherine Hobson
This story appears in the November 15, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.