John Wayne Coined the Term ‘The Big C’ While Doing Cancer Awareness Outreach

by Keeli Parkey

Cancer has claimed the lives of countless people. One of them was the iconic movie star John Wayne. But, before the disease took him, The Duke beat it once and gave it a name to help take some of the fear out of the term.

That name is the ‘Big C.” According to, it is a term people still use today when talking about cancer.

Flashback to the 1960s. It was during that decade when John Wayne was first diagnosed with lung cancer. The cancer was serious enough that the Duke had to undergo surgery. This surgical treatment included the removal of half of one of his lungs, as well as one of his ribs.

Nowadays, many celebrities are very open with the public about their health issues. However, when Wayne was diagnosed, it was thought that if the public discovered that he was sick it would be damaging to his career.

John Wayne Talked About His Cancer Diagnosis During 1964 Press Conference

Well, John Wayne was never one to back down from a fight. So, he decided to take the narrative about his battle with cancer into his own hands. He invited the media into his home in 1964 and talked about his health with the public.

“They told me to withhold my cancer operation from the public because it would hurt my image,” the Duke said during the 1964 press conference. “Isn’t there a good image in John Wayne beating cancer? Sure, I licked the Big C.”

With those few words, John Wayne helped himself – and others – gain some power over a very scary disease. Interestingly, the press conference was reportedly the only time Aissa Wayne, his daughter, used the term “cancer.”

According to Aissa, Wayne did not use the term cancer when he was diagnosed with cancer yet again. This diagnosis took place 15 years after that press conference. When it returned, the disease was found in his stomach.

Sadly, the Duke could not beat the “Big C” for a second time. He passed away on June 11, 1979. He was 72 years old at the time of his death.

Between his first diagnosis and the second, John Wayne made many movies. He even made an appearance on “The Beverly Hillbillies” in 1967, according to He also made several appearances on the classic comedy show “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.”

Some of the films the Duke made between 1964 and his death included “The Green Berets,” “Hellfighters,” “True Grit,” “Big Jake,” “Rooster Cogburn,” and “The Shootist.”