“We’re trying to determine how far it’s gone.” The words of the radiologist at Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, California must have sent chills down the spine of John Wayne as he prepared for another round of X-rays. “Are you telling me I have cancer?” asked Wayne. The radiologist’s simple, matter of fact response of “Yeah,” floored Duke.
Wayne later described the bluntness of the radiologist as feeling “like somebody’d hit me across the belly with a baseball bat.” The year was 1964 and the diagnosis of cancer was often an automatic death sentence. John Wayne’s career as well as his life might have ended fourteen years early if his third and then wife, Pilar, had not nagged at him to keep his promise to visit Scripps for a check-up.
Duke had been experiencing a persistent cough since late 1963 and the cough had worsened by the time he began filming In Harm’s Way in June 1964. The cough had become so bad that it interfered with filming at times. Initially, he thought the cough was due to allergies or a cold but as it worsened, he came to believe it was a “smoker’s cough.”
Duke had been an avid smoker since the 1930’s and felt his cough came with the habit. “Hell, who wouldn’t cough? I smoked six packs of cigarettes a day,” he told an interviewer in 1976. He had even done magazine ads for his favorite brand of unfiltered cigarettes, Camel, in the 1950’s. To get a sense of how much smoking was a part of Wayne’s world at the time, watch his film, Hatari! Count the number of scenes in which someone has a cigarette or what Duke later called a “cancer stick” in their hands.
The X-rays revealed a cancerous growth on the upper lobe of Wayne’s left lung and he was admitted to Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles for surgery on September 16, 1964. His physician, Dr. Thomas Lambert had compared Duke’s current X-rays to older X-rays that had been taken for insurance purposes just prior to the filming of In Harm’s Way. Although it had not been noticed in the earlier images, Dr. Lambert was able to find the growth from the insurance exam X-rays and told Wayne that it had been “the size of a watermelon seed” at that time. By the time the current X-rays were taken, the cancer had grown to the size of a baby’s fist. Fortunately, the growth had not metastasized or spread.
On the morning of September 17, 1964, surgeon Dr. John E. Jones operated on Duke and removed the tumor. Due to the size of the growth, Dr. Jones had to get to it from the back so that any possible tentacles coming from the tumor could be seen and dealt with. The surgeon made a twenty-eight inch incision that went from Wayne’s chest, under his left arm and to his back. Dr. Jones then removed a rib and cut out the cancerous portion of the lung. The surgery lasted six hours and Duke was sent to recovery after being stitched up.
Five days after undergoing the removal of a cancerous lung, Wayne was back in the operating room. He had torn his stitches after suffering coughing spells and his face, throat, and hands had swollen. Duke believed that somehow his windpipe had been twisted during the original surgery and he worried that the swelling was due to his kidneys shutting down. However, his doctors were able to repair his stitches and insert drainage tubes which brought the edema under control.
The second surgery lasted five and a half hours and his recovery was another testament to the strength and endurance of John Wayne. Three weeks later, Duke was released from the hospital and told to take it easy while re-cooperating. However, Duke was not known for sitting around long and was in Durango, Mexico filming The Sons Of Katie Elder eleven weeks after being released from the hospital, again adding to his reputation as being bigger than life. Duke had won this time but cancer would demand a rematch in 1979.