John Wayne’s Five Instructions for Fighting Cancer

“John Wayne — 1961” by 20th Century Fox. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

In writing Triskaidekaphobia, I did a quick Google search for quotes about courage.

The most pithy choice was “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” I liked the metaphor. Having saddled a few horses in my life, I recognize that this is an act full of intention. Hoisting a heavy wood and leather saddle onto the back of a thousand-pound quadruped that may not be in the mood for it is not something you do without a reason. There are important steps to follow that are part of the process, and omitting any one of those is unwise. If you’re going to saddle up then don’t do a half-assed job. Otherwise, you’re likely to hurt either yourself or the horse.

So do what you gotta do and do it right, even if you are scared.

The quote came from John Wayne, but apparently not from a movie. Most of his films are older than I am, so I’ve only seen a couple of the later ones. From what I understand, he was the Bruce Willis/Chuck Norris of my parents’ generation. The Duke died of cancer in 1979 after a long and successful career in film. Coincidentally, he was born here in Iowa, only a few miles from where I live.

What I didn’t realize is among his thousands of lines from interviews and movie scripts are a handful of shiny gold coins for those of us dealing with cancer.


“Well, there are some things a man just can’t run away from.” — John Wayne

While there’s no running from an enemy that’s already inside of you, it seems that some people try anyway. I think getting out of your own head for a while is therapeutic but it’s no way to live your life. Stand your ground, pardner.


“Don’t pick a fight, but if you find yourself in one I suggest you make damn sure you win.” — John Wayne

Cancer already started the fight. You just need to face this head-on. Step up and you get three options: win, lose, or remission. (Understand that sometimes remission is as close to winning as we get to be.) But for me, I’m still betting on a second round knock-out. With the team I have on my side, I like my odds.


“All battles are fought by scared men who’d rather be someplace else.” — John Wayne

I’ve never met a cancer patient that is truly happy about their disease. I do know people that have taken this terrible challenge and used it to grow and become more than they might have without it. I certainly admire that strength of character and capability. We can learn and become stronger as a result of the cancer. But I’d damn sure prefer to be someplace else — ideally a tropical beach.


“When you stop fighting, that’s death.” — John Wayne

You and the cancer are both in the same body. If you give up, it wins. Ultimately only one of you gets to. Let me be perfectly clear — it’s your prerogative to give up whenever you choose to. Sometimes a graceful exit is a better choice than the drawn-out agony of a prolonged battle that you’ve no hope of winning. I’m a far piece aways from that point of view but I respect my friends and loved ones who have made those choices.


As cancer survivors, we continually learn from each other. We learn practical things like tips for dealing with treatments or stylish ways to tie a do-rag to cover your bald head. And we learn how to cope with the hand we’ve been dealt in this cosmic poker game.

Finally, because the big guy understood that a glass of good whisky is something to appreciate:

“I never trust a man who doesn’t drink.” — John Wayne


Tip the barmaid and don’t shoot the piano player. Me and the Doc are calling out that varmint Cancer at sun-up next Tuesday. I’ll be beholden to y’all if you’d say a few words on my behalf. Cheers.

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