On April 12 1980 a tenacious one-legged cancer patient from Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, started out on a cross-country run to raise money for cancer research but would instead start a national movement that continues to grow today. Terry Fox, a mild-mannered 22-year old, succumbed to his cancer during his cross-country trek but has been enshrined as a Canadian hero. Statues of him dot the land, he appears on money, high schools and streets are named after him and the world’s largest annual single-day fundraiser is in his name.
Terry Fox was born in 1958 in Winnipeg, Manitoba but his parents moved to British Columbia when he was only 8. Terry had two sisters and a brother, and by all accounts grew up in a loving and supportive family. As a young child Terry loved sports, particularly soccer and basketball, and in grade 12 he won his high school’s “Athlete of the Year” award.
In 1977 Terry began feeling severe pain in his right knee. He was soon diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a deadly form of cancer that often starts in joints. Doctors amputated his leg in an attempt to cut off the spread of the disease. It seemed Terry’s athletic career was over, but with the help of an artificial leg Terry began walking only three weeks after the amputation!
The amputation, however, did not stop the spread of the cancer and Terry was told he didn’t have much time left. For the next two years Terry underwent regular chemotherapy treatments at the British Columbia Cancer Control Facility in Vancouver. He became depressed as he regularly witnessed other cancer victims deteriorate and die. Terry, at some point during his time there, decided that he was going to do something different with what remained of his life.
It seems that sometime in 1979 Terry Fox decided to run across the country to raise money for cancer research. He wrote a letter to the Canadian Cancer Society, the country’s leading cancer non-profit, asking for help with funding for his project. The Society denied him funding but did say they would pick up his cause once he found some of his own sponsors. Terry sent letters out to corporations and businesses asking for help. He needed a car, running shoes and enough money to eat for the several months it would take him to run from coast to coast. None of the businesses he wrote to answered, except for Ford Motor Company who happily agree to lend him a camper van and Imperial Oil agreed to cover the costs of gas. With sponsors and a vision, Terry named his cross-country fundraiser the “Marathon of Hope”.
On April 12, 1980, Terry dipped his left foot into the Atlantic Ocean in St John’s, Newfoundland, and began his run to the Pacific. His goal: Victoria, BC. Terry’s friend, Dough Alward, drove the van and cooked food.
The first few days in Newfoundland were met with heavy rains and gale-force winds. Despite the cold, Terry continued on. Not many people paid attention to him as he ran through St John’s and the surrounding towns, but one local reporter picked up the story and on day three, when Terry entered Port Aux Basques, he was met by 10,000 people who had donated $1 each! This amazing turnout by one small Newfoundland community gave Terry’s movement the momentum it needed. CBC news picked up the story and spread it nationally on TV, and soon Terry was being met in every town with large turnouts and donations. A crowd of supporters soon joined Terry, some running with him and others driving behind him.
It took Terry 2 months to run through Newfoundland and the Maritimes. In Nova Scotia, Terry and his friend Doug were barely on speaking terms, and Terry’s brother Darrell flew out to help.
On June 10 the Marathon of Hope left entered Quebec, where new frustrations were waiting. Terry was often forced off the road by rude drivers, and because of his inability to speak French he was often denied service, fundraising opportunities and was generally treated badly by the media and the population. The Marathon raised very little money in Quebec.
Terry Fox entered Montreal on June 22, 1980, where he received a big surprise. International hotelier Isadore Sharpe, who owns the Four Seasons franchise of luxury hotels, had recently lost a son to cancer and had heard about the crazy one-legged kid from Canada trying to run across the country. Sharpe offered Terry a free stay at the Four Seasons Montreal and pledged $2 per mile. He also gathered the support and pledges of 1,000 other corporations!
Fox crossed into Ontario at the town of Hawkesbury and was met by a marching band, a police escort and thousands of curious onlookers as well as a cheque for $100,000 raised by several local non-profit groups. After his ordeal in Quebec this outpouring of support gave Terry the motivation to continue his Marathon, and he entered Ottawa on Canada Day to the cheers of thousands of people. Prime-Minister Pierre Trudeau met with Terry, and he made the honorary kick-off at a CFL game. He was given a standing ovation by 16,000 fans that brought him to tears in the middle of the stadium.
By now, Terry had picked up national acclaim and was being met by huge crowds wherever he went. The Cancer Society, now interested in him, presented him with an impossible schedule of speeches and fundraising events to attend across the country. One thing that broke Terry’s normally cool demeanor was when the Toronto Star printed a tabloid piece about him going on a date. This intrusion into his personal life caused him to publicly attack the media, which the Globe and Mail responded with by accusing Terry of being an abusive and tyrannical brother.
By the time Terry reached Toronto he had developed cysts and an inflamed ankle as well as severe shin splints from his months of non-stop running. He refused painkillers as that would mean suspending his mission. As he ran from Toronto to northern Ontario, his medical condition grew worse. His body reacted badly and the cancer that was slowly killing him began to spread quickly.
On September 1st, 1980, in the town of Thunder Bay, Ontario, Terry held a tearful press conference in which he officially ended his run. The cancer had spread to his lungs and it was impossible for him to continue. By this time Terry had run 5,373 kilometers and raised more than $24 million towards cancer research and helping victims of cancer. Among the donations were $1 million each from the governments of British Columbia and Ontario. Terry Fox had become an international sensation, and he was receiving letters from all over the world (one was addressed simply to “Terry Fox, Canada”). Due to his deteriorating medical condition he had to turn down an invite to appear on the Johnny Carson Show, although US President Gerald Ford sent him a personal letter of encouragement.
Closer to home, Terry was awarded the Order of Canada, the youngest person to ever receive the nations highest honour. Unfortunately for Terry, the cancer had reached such a severe stage that he was hospitalized shortly after. In 1981 Terry’s condition worsened, and Pope John Paul II sent him a personal letter and led a televised worldwide prayer for a miracle. Advanced treatments and prayers were not enough, however. At 4:28 am on June 28 1981, with his family by his side in the Royal Columbian Hospital in Vancouver, Terry slipped into a coma and passed away.
Flags across the country were hung at half-mast for a week. In the House of Commons, Prime-Minister Trudea said “It occurs very rarely in the life of a nation that the courageous spirit of one person unites all people in the celebration of his life and in the mourning of his death … We do not think of him as one who was defeated by misfortune but as one who inspired us with the example of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.”
Terry Fox’s legacy lives on in Canada today. In September of 1981, one year after he was forced to give up his cross-country run, the first national Terry Fox Run was held. This one-day marathon takes place in municipalities across the country and has since grown into a major fundraising event for cancer research. In 1999 the Terry Fox Run became the world’s largest single-day fundraising event!
Terry Fox has statues across the country, all along his route and along the places he planned to run through but never made it. There are more than a dozen high schools named after him, and 36 cities have a Terry Fox road or drive or avenue. Terry Fox regularly appears on special edition coins, and an award for courage, the Terry Fox Award, has since been instituted. Most poignantly, Terry Fox was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in Toronto, with his display going up right alongside his hero’s, Bobby Orr.
Visit the Terry Fox Run foundation for information about runs in your community: http://www.terryfox.org/