An Extraordinary Auxiliary

January 31, 2017

When a group of determined women come together behind a cause they believe in, it’s a good bet that the result is going to be extraordinary. So it is with the John Wayne Cancer Institute Auxiliary, which since its founding in 1982 has raised nearly $20 million to fund groundbreaking research, vital new laboratory equipment and the nationally recognized Surgical Oncology Fellowship Program.


The 35th anniversary of the Institute is a reminder of the auxiliary’s long history of dedication and support. Back in the early 1980s, the late Sandy Cohen and Noreen Nelson–both former patients of Institute cofounder Donald L. Morton, MD–invited 14 women for lunch, and the auxiliary was born. Today it’s 800 strong, with a board of 40 that includes the daughters of Sandy and Noreen.

“We’re so lucky to still have so many of our board members from that first board,” says Anita Swift, the eldest grandchild of John Wayne and a member of the board for the past 16 years. Anita is now in her third two-year term as auxiliary president. “We’re pretty proud of the fact that we’ve been around for so long.”

Each April more than 500 people attend the auxiliary’s biggest fundraiser, the Odyssey Ball. The event raised $750,000 this spring and $1 million last year. At each Odyssey Ball, the auxiliary honors and celebrates members of our community and their efforts in the fight against cancer with “The Duke” Special Service Award. Dr. Anton J. Bilchik, Kirk Douglas, Dr. Mark B. Faries, Larry Hagman and Dr. Lawrence D. Piro are among the previous honorees.

Another award–the “True Grit” Humanitarian Award–is presented each year to an individual who embodies the American values characteristic of John Wayne. The first went to former First Lady Nancy Reagan; other honorees include Larry King, the Mandela family and Alana Stewart of the Farrah Fawcett Foundation. Earlier this year, the auxiliary presented the first annual Dr. Donald L. Morton Legend Award to long-time member Ruth Weil for her steadfast support of cancer research.

The auxiliary also hosts educational meetings at private homes, book signings and other events to raise money and educate the public on the Institute’s work. They’ll continue to support research, equipment and postgraduate training for physicians, Anita says. And in the future, she sees the auxiliary stepping up its efforts to educate and spread the word through an increased social media presence and additional small educational evenings.

Anita credits the commitment of the auxiliary’s members with its success—women like Sheri Rosenblum, a 25-year board member and recipient of this year’s Angel Award, and Ruth Weil, who volunteers every Tuesday at the hospital. Countless other women on the board and in the general membership never hesitate to help.

“Our women walk the walk, and they talk the talk,” Anita says. “They understand our mission– they want to find a cure for cancer as much as our doctors do.”

To learn more about the John Wayne Cancer Institute Auxiliary, please contact Mary Byrnes at 310-582-7102.