John Wayne cultivated an image and personality that film audiences adored for decades and to this day. But it required toughness and grit that’s hard to find and potentially counter-productive.
This is why when Wayne first contracted cancer in 1964, a top priority for the legend was to respond quickly. It’s insane to think about from a modern perspective but having cancer at that point in time wasn’t just risky from a health perspective, but a branding one as well.
John Wayne was lucky. The resources and attention paid to Hollywood superstars at the time forced a more serious discussion of his poor health. Considering he was smoking five packs of cigarettes a day, it doesn’t seem like it was a hard case to solve.
That being said, catching it early didn’t mean that it was a seamless operation or recovery. For one, the Sands of Iwo Jima actor had to have a rib and a significant chunk of his lung removed just to mitigate the spread.
John Wayne Comments on Cancer, Image
Digging into an old New York Times article from 1964, Wayne acknowledged the potential harm to his career. Speaking at a press conference just days after his surgery, the actor disclosed that he had gone to treat cancer.
Wayne said he had, “cancer of the lung —and I’ve licked it.” Further, the actor added, “my advisers all thought it would destroy my image… But there’s a hell of a lot of good image in John Wayne licking cancer—and that’s what my doctors tell me.”
The event is widely considered important in the scope of cancer research and battle. Many credit the conference with pushing Americans to treat cancer for the deadly disease it was.
“I thought to myself: ‘I was saved by early detection,” Wayne said at the conference. “Movie image or not, I think I should tell my story so that other people can be saved by getting annual checkups.’”
Second Battle with Cancer
Unfortunately, John Wayne was not able to overcome his second bout with cancer. 15 years later after his lung surgery, Wayne found out he had stomach cancer.
Just a few years after completing his final movie The Shootist, John Wayne succumbed to the devastating disease at the age of 72. The actor attempted various options, but it was not enough at the time.
But, as mentioned above, Wayne left a lasting legacy. Not just for his acting, but for spreading awareness over exactly how lethal and brutal cancer can be.