As an iconic star of big-screen Westerns, actor John Wayne was known for winning battles on the American frontier. He died from cancer at the age of 72 in 1979, but his fighting spirit lives on through an eponymous foundation committed to groundbreaking research in defeating many forms of the disease.
Patrick Wayne serves as the board chairman for the John Wayne Cancer Institute at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., which has been advancing medical studies since the 1980s and is a longtime beneficiary of Shoes on Sale fundraising.
“It’s been many years that we’ve developed the relationship with FFANY and the work they do,” Wayne told Footwear News. “The women get shoes, and the money goes to cutting-edge research and breast cancer — everybody wins.”
The Wayne family began a clinic in 1981 at UCLA, where John died two years earlier after undergoing an experimental clinical trial.
“My dad said, ‘Sure, if [the therapy] works, I’ll help you guys,’” Wayne recalled. “He went on the trial, and it didn’t work, and he passed away. But as a legacy to my dad, with my brothers and sisters, we used his name for cancer research.”
Patrick’s son Michael is also on the board of the institute, which moved to St. John’s in 1991, and his niece Anita Swift is president of the institute’s auxiliary support group.
“I have two grandchildren, and I’m trying to get them involved and keep the generations going, and keep a Wayne around to drive it forward,” Patrick Wayne said. “If you had told me that my dad’s name would have the same resonance and popularity 37 years later, I would’ve said you’re crazy.”
Some of the research that JWCI continues spearheading is in immunotherapy, which harnesses the patient’s immune system to fight cancer. “Through funding provided by FFANY, we’ve been able to keep women alive much longer and in some cases cure the disease in individual patients,” said Michael Avila, JWCI’s VP of development.
He added, “I can’t emphasize enough how much the quality of women’s lives is better. There were standard treatments 20 years ago that would make women sick; many of those now are not like that because of the role immune therapy has played in cancer treatment.”
JWCI was an early pioneer of the sentinel lymph node biopsy, which it developed in the 1990s for patients with melanoma and breast cancer. The procedure helps identify lymph nodes to remove in its sequence of spreading to vital organs.
“It limits the invasiveness of recovery,” Wayne explained. “The prognosis is that the recovery is better — you don’t have as much damage. The likelihood of becoming cancer-free is better.”
Money raised for JWCI helps support research programs that advance treatment of cancer for patients around the world.
“My daughter’s coworker underwent [the treatment] in London, and it also saved a dear friend of mine,” Wayne said. “We developed it. How do you put a price on that? When it becomes a personal friend, it becomes even more poignant. Everything you’ve done in life is meaningless until you find out it served a friend — what bigger reward is there in life?”