WASHINGTON (AP) — Chief Justice William Rehnquist
disclosed yesterday that he’s undergoing radiation and
chemotherapy for thyroid cancer.
Rehnquist was expected to be on the bench when the court
returned from a two-week break. But instead he issued a statement
saying “at the suggestion of my doctors, (I) am continuing to
recuperate at home.”
Rehnquist was released from a Maryland hospital Friday after
undergoing surgery to have a tube inserted in his throat to help
The court has released no details about his weeklong stay at
Bethesda Naval Medical Center, except to say that he had a
tracheotomy. The type of thyroid cancer and its severity have not
Rehnquist, 80, revealed the cancer diagnosis a week ago,
prompting speculation about a court vacancy for the first time in
more than a decade. The winner of Tuesday’s presidential
election is expected to name one or more justices to a court that
is deeply divided on issues like abortion, affirmative action and
the death penalty.
Rehnquist said that he was receiving outpatient radiation and
chemotherapy. Cancer of the thyroid, a gland in the neck that
produces hormones to help regulate the body’s use of energy,
is generally treatable but can be more aggressive in older
“According to my doctors, my plan to return to the office
today was too optimistic,” he said.
“While at home, I am working on court matters, including
opinions for cases already argued. I am, and will, continue to be
in close contact with my colleagues, my law clerks, and members of
the Supreme Court staff.”
Rehnquist had been hoarse for several weeks before his
hospitalization at the hospital in suburban Bethesda, Md. on Oct.
22. He had the tracheotomy a day later.
Rehnquist, a conservative who has been on the court since 1972
and chief justice since 1986, has had other health problems
including chronic back pain and a torn leg tendon that required
In his absence yesterday, Justice John Paul Stevens, 84,
presided over the court.
He said Rehnquist could still vote in cases being argued this
week, after reviewing transcripts and briefs.
The combination of radiation and chemotherapy raises the
suspicion that Rehnquist’s cancer is not one of the common
types that are usually easily treatable, said Dr. Joseph Geradts of
Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y.
The most common types are papillary and follicular cancer, and
they are generally responsive to radioactive iodine, Geradts
Chemotherapy could be needed if it is the more aggressive form,
called anaplastic, he said.
He noted that the gland is often removed as part of cancer
treatment, but in cases of anaplastic cancer the thyroid sometimes
cannot be readily removed.
The presence of a tracheotomy to ease Rehnquist’s
breathing also might indicate anaplastic cancer, Geradts said,
since that form can squeeze the trachea.