00:56 - Source: CNN
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has cancerous nodules removed

Editor’s Note: Julie Cohen & Betsy West are the directors of “RBG,” the CNN Films documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg that is on the shortlist for an Academy Award. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion at CNN.

CNN —  

December’s news that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg underwent surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering to remove two cancerous nodules in her left lung hit progressives hard. After all, it was just the month before that the 85-year-old stalwart of dissent broke three ribs. And this new discovery follows serious battles with colorectal cancer AND pancreatic cancer.

Betsy West, left, and Julie Cohen

So today, the segment of the country that obsesses over Ginsburg’s every sneeze, knowing her health is the only thing standing in the way of a third Trump Supreme Court pick, holds its collective breath, asking “How much can one woman take?”

The answer, from everything we observed during three years researching and directing “RBG,” our feature documentary about her life: A LOT.

Seemingly superhuman determination and toughness have been hallmarks of Ginsburg’s entire life. This is a woman who had no trouble staying at the top of her Harvard Law School class – a class in which she was one of nine women among 500 students – at the same time she was taking care of a toddler and nursing a husband stricken with a potentially fatal cancer.

When the established law firms of the 1950s and 60s closed doors in the faces of Ginsburg and other women, she turned that discrimination into a motivator, arguing a series of six cases in the US Supreme Court pushing for gender equality. She won five of them.

When she completed a brutal course of chemotherapy following her colorectal cancer in 1999 at age 66, she chose to begin a workout regimen with a personal trainer. In an interview for our film, Bryant Johnson, who has trained her for 19 years, compared her favorably to the young soldiers he supervises in his capacity as a fitness trainer for the US Army Reserves. “Young soldiers, they ask too many questions. ‘Why we gotta do this? Why we gotta do that?’ But Justice Ginsburg, she’s dedicated. She’s like a cyborg. I mean, she’s like a machine.”

That same cyborg-level toughness seems to be on display with her latest illness. The nodules on Ginsburg’s lung were discovered when doctors did CT scans on her fractured ribs, the Supreme Court said in a press release. Note that the Justice waited until the Friday before a holiday week to have her surgery, presumably with the plan of being back on the bench by January 7, the Supreme Court’s next scheduled argument day.

It’s a strategy Justice Ginsburg got from her friend Sandra Day O’Connor, the Court’s first female Justice, who underwent her own fight with breast cancer. O’Connor’s advice to Ginsburg: get chemo on Fridays, so you’ll have the weekend to rest up and be back in Court for oral arguments on Monday.

RBG’s biggest challenge may be to pace herself. Her natural inclination is to get the job done, even if it requires staying up well past midnight, as she often does. She loves her work, she loves the law and she is determined to keep at it as long as she is capable.

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    During production of our documentary, we and our camerawoman were often exhausted trying to keep up with her – whether at a law school speaking engagement, at the gym or at the opera. One night, after an especially grueling day of shooting, we were just eager to get some sleep. The Justice let slip that she was going home to put the finishing touches on her latest dissent.

    So today, we weren’t surprised to hear that on her flight to New York last night for her latest cancer surgery, she appeared to be reading legal papers.

    An earlier version of this opinion piece incorrectly said Ginsburg was the only woman among 500 students in her class at Harvard Law School.