When you think about tough and rugged men, you imagine John Wayne. The Duke’s gruff cowboy image defined a genre and made him one of the biggest stars in the world. But 42 years after his passing from stomach cancer, his family is working to make sure his legacy lives far beyond his roles on the Big Screen.
“Tomorrow hopes we have learned something from yesterday.” – John Wayne pic.twitter.com/ZqxTK76fAn
— John Wayne (@JoinJohnWayne) February 3, 2022
The John Wayne Cancer Foundation
The John Wayne Cancer Foundation was created by his family in 1985. Wayne’s son Ethan Wayne runs the foundation and Wayne’s granddaughter Anita LaCava Swift is very involved and helped found the Auxiliary for the foundation and sits on its board of directors.
“My grandfather, when he was dying, asked his family to find a cure for cancer by using his image and likness, so that’s what we’ve been doing,”
Currently, the foundation is working to educate children on skin cancer prevention by encouraging them to “Block the Blaze” and wear protective clothing and sunscreen. In addition, JWCF gives grants to those doing groundbreaking oncological research.
Meet Dr. Beitsch, one of our John Wayne Alumni Fellows! Dr. Beitsch did his surgical oncology fellowship at the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, California. pic.twitter.com/7LmrjtOLSJ
— John Wayne (@JoinJohnWayne) February 10, 2022
John Wayne’s Multiple Cancer Battles
Before stomach cancer took his life, Wayne successfully battled lung cancer. Following the success, Wayne became focused on beating cancer again, this included taking part in a cancer vaccine trial.
A lifetime smoker, Wayne’s lung cancer caused the removal of his left lung and two ribs. Following the diagnosis, Wayne broke with the confidentiality standards of the time to announce he had developed cancer.
His honesty about the disease was initially discouraged, as movie execs feared it would hurt his image.
However, it proved to be quite the contrary as Wayne continued to star in films and became one of the first major celebrity spokesmen for cancer prevention.
There is also a theory that Wayne developed cancer due to working on the film The Conqueror. Filmed near a nuclear testing site, 91 members of the 222 person crew developed cancer sometime in their life with 46 dying from the disease.
I have to point out that those numbers were in line with cancer rates for the nation and many of the crew and cast were heavy smokers and drinkers.
However, several people including Wayne developed rare and rapidly spreading cancers. The link between nuclear radiation and increased cancer rates is highly debated in the medical community, with many long-term studies finding little causality between the two.
Directed by Dick Powell and produced by eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, the film has sustained a long history of controversy. Besides the cancer deaths, John Wayne’s role has garnered a lot of controversies. In The Conqueror, Wayne portrays Genghis Khan, who was Mongolian. Wayne is of course not Asian, and current standards would not allow a white man to portray himself as Asian.
Here’s a brief scene from the film:
However, at the time, there were few Asian actors in Hollywood and certainly none with the star power of Wayne.
At the time it was considered normal for white actors to portray Asian men (Yul Brynner’s King Mongkut comes to mind) but society has changed. That doesn’t mean we need to cancel Wayne or Brynner (who had Mongol ancestry) for their previous roles.
And while we’re on the subject of Brynner, he also became a cancer and anti-smoking advocate following his diagnosis with lung cancer.
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Editor’s Note: This article was updated to note that the foundation was created by John Wayne’s family, not spearheaded by his grand-daughter Anita.