updated 11/1/2004 12:21:39 PM ET 2004-11-01T17:21:39

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist on Monday said he is delaying his expected return to the Supreme Court while undergoing radiation and chemotherapy for thyroid cancer — a sign he may have a more serious form of the illness.

Rehnquist had planned to join fellow justices when they returned to the bench after 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 last Friday after undergoing surgery to have a tube inserted in his throat to help his breathing.

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 been disclosed.

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 people.

Treatment suggests more serious cancer form
Dr. Ann M. Gillenwater of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston said that the combination of chemotherapy and radiation is the normal treatment for anaplastic thyroid cancer, a more serious type.

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 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.

Supreme Court justices

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 surgery.

In the statement, Rehnquist said he was receiving outpatient radiation and chemotherapy. “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.

Stevens presides over court
In his absence Monday, 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.

Rehnquist left his town house outside Washington in a wheelchair on Monday morning. Journalists were kept on the sidewalk and unable to see much as aides helped the chief justice into a limousine.

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 said. 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.

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