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John Wayne's Cancers: Smoking or Radiation?

john wayne

 John Wayne was one of the best-paid actors in Hollywood for more than 40 years, appeared in more than 170 films and starred in 142 of them, mostly westerns. His size (6'4" and 225 pounds) and pugnacious behavior helped him to be cast as a cowboy, lawman, soldier and athlete, but for most of his life he had a cancer-promoting lifestyle.  He was overweight, out of shape, a chain-smoker since high school, drank heavily and was promiscuous. In his later movies, studio directors tried to finish filming by noon because by afternoon the alcohol would make him mean.  He appeared in many magazine ads and TV commercials for Camel cigarettes. In the mid-1950s, he was up to seven packs of unfiltered Camels a day.  In many of his later movies, he had a big belly and was visibly out of breath when he had to exert himself. 

Football Player to Movie Star
He was born Marion Robert Morrison in 1907. He was a poor kid who worked as a fruit picker, soda jerk, ice hauler and truck driver.  He played football for the 1924 champion Glendale High School team. He was turned down by the U.S. Naval Academy.  The University of Southern California offered him a football scholarship and he played for one year before he broke his collar bone while surfing, lost his scholarship and had to leave school.  
 
In 1926, along with other members of the University of Southern California football team, he had put on a Harvard jersey to play in the football scenes for the film, "Brown of Harvard". When he left USC, he decided to hang around movie studios. He went from bit parts to stardom in eighty westerns from 1930 to 1939.  A director at Fox Studios gave him his new name, John Wayne.
 
Marriage and More
He could speak fluent Spanish and married Hispanic women three times. With Josephine Alicia Saenz, he had four children, and they divorced after 12 years of marriage. He then married Esperanza Baur, a Mexican actress who tried to kill him. He came home early one morning from a party celebrating the finish of the movie, "Angel and the Badman". Esperanza was convinced that her husband and his co-star, Gail Russell, were having an affair and she tried to shoot him as he walked into the house.  His third wife was Pilar Pallete; they had three children and separated in 1973, after 19 years of marriage.  He had affairs, including an on and off 20 year-escapade with Marlene Dietrich and nine years with Merle Oberon. After he left his third wife he lived with his former secretary, Pat Stacy, until he died in 1979.
 


 

"The Big C"
In 1964 at age 60, Wayne coined the term "The Big C" when he told the world that he had had a cancerous left lung and four ribs removed.  He appeared to be cured, even though he was severely short of breath from the extensive damage in his remaining lung caused by smoking up to seven packs of unfiltered Camel cigarettes a day.  He could not exercise because he would become severely short of breath with any increase in activity. In spite of this, he quickly resumed chewing tobacco and smoking cigars. 
 
In April, 1977 he was hospitalized for heart valve surgery and in January, 1979 at age 71, he had a nine-hour operation to remove his entire stomach for stomach cancer, possibly associated with his very heavy alcohol intake.  In May, 1979 he had part of his colon removed for what appeared to be colon cancer.  (I have not seen his pathology report, but several news articles report that he had colon cancer also.)  To have three primary cancers is very unusual.  He died on June 11, 1979.  
 


 

He certainly increased his cancer risk by: 
• smoking heavily, 
• drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, 
• being overweight
• eating red meat and fried foods 
• not exercising 
• probably acquiring many venereal diseases 
However, his multiple primary cancers may also have been at least partly caused by one of the films he made. 
 
Radiation Exposure in The Conqueror
In 1954, at age 47, he starred in The Conqueror, a big budget film about Genghis Khan that was filmed in the Utah desert.   During the Cold War, the US government exploded many atomic bombs at a Nevada test site a hundred miles away from the filming site.  It turned that area into a radioactive desert whose predominantly Mormon community has suffered from a high frequency of breast, thyroid, colon and lung cancers and leukemia.  In a photo published in The Guardian (June 6, 2015), John Wayne and his two sons watch a crew member at the movie location adjusting a Geiger counter, which "crackled so loudly Wayne thought it was broken. Moving it to different clumps of rock and sand produced the same result." 
 
In 1945, the Manhattan Project scientists conducted the first atomic tests in great secrecy in New Mexico. After World War II, the U.S. government tested atomic weapons on islands in the southern Pacific Ocean. In 1950, the start of the Korean war and the escalating Cold War with the Soviet Union required greater security so testing was moved to Nevada where "winds would blow radiological hazards away from Las Vegas and Los Angeles towards virtually uninhabitable land downwind to the west".  In an area of ranches and several Mormon communities, more than 100 bombs sent radioactive clouds across southern Utah and northern Arizona between 1951 and 1962 .  After 1962, above-ground testing was stopped and was continued underground until 30 years later in 1992.
 
In 1954, the head of RKO pictures, Howard Hughes, brought actors, producers, technicians and stuntmen and lots of money to fill local hotels and bring extra work for the 5000 residents of St George’s.  The locals were paid $2 or $3 a day and left to sit in the sun while the stars were in air-conditioned trailers.
 


 

In 1963, Dick Powell died from lymph cancer, and Pedro Armendáriz, the Mexican actor who played Jamuga, shot himself after he was told that he had a fatal cancer.  In 1975, Susan Hayward, Wayne's co-star, died of brain cancer.  Before John Wayne died of stomach cancer in 1979, his sons Patrick and Michael were diagnosed with non-fatal cancers; both had been at the filming location.  A report in 1980 stated that of 220 cast and crew members, 91 (41 percent) were diagnosed with various types of cancer and 46 of them had died from their cancers. 
 
However, many of the cast and crew were chain smokers, drank alcohol regularly, ate red meat daily, were sugarholics, didn't exercise and were overweight.  In contrast, Mormons typically have very low cancer rates because they do not smoke or drink. Compared to Mormons in other areas, those in the radioactive fallout area where The Conquerors was filmed suffered five times the rate of leukemia (JAMA Jan 13, 1984;251(2):230-236).  In 1990, Congress allocated two billion dollars for cancer patients in that area, with claims capped at $50,000 per person.
 
Cumulative Radiation Exposure 
Of course your chances of ever having been exposed to radiation from atomic bomb fallout are very small.  However, the effects of radiation from all sources are cumulative. For example, a person's chances of getting basal cell skin cancer increases with the cumulative exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun over a lifetime.  That applies to exposure to diagnostic X rays also.   Radiation from a CT scan of the chest or abdomen, one upper GI series exam or one barium enema each equal radiation from 400 chest X rays, while one coronary angiogram to find blocked arteries leading to the heart equals 800 chest X rays (Mayo Clin Proc, 2015;90(10):1380-92).  These doses are in the range of the lowest doses some of the Japanese survivors of the atomic bombs received and do increase risk for cancer.  
 
The increased risk of cancer from a single CT scan is estimated to be one in a thousand.  This is much less than the one in five North Americans who die of cancer.  The Food and Drug Administration writes on Radiation-Emitting Products: "Nevertheless, this small increase in radiation-associated cancer risk for an individual can become a public health concern if large numbers of people undergo increased numbers of CT screening procedures of uncertain benefit."
 
My Recommendations
In addition to avoiding the behaviors listed above that are known to increase cancer risk (smoking, excess weight, promiscuous sex and so forth), I recommend that you discuss any diagnostic tests that involve radiation, and any available alternatives, with your doctor.  For example, ultrasound and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) tests do not use radiation.  This advice is not meant to keep you from having necessary diagnostic tests, but it should caution you about requesting unnecessary X-rays or CT scans.   
 


 

May 26, 1907 – June 11, 1979
July 2nd, 2016
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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