Terry Fox – A Canadian Legend!
Terrance Stanley “Terry” Fox, CC, OD (July 28, 1958 – June 28, 1981) was a Canadian humanitarian, athlete, and cancer research activist. He was a distance runner and basketball player for his Port Coquitlam, British Columbia high school and Simon Fraser University. His right leg was amputated in 1977 after he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, though he continued to run using an artificial leg. He also played wheelchair basketball in Vancouver after losing his leg, winning three national championships.
In 1980, he attempted to run across Canada in the Marathon of Hope to raise cancer awareness. Fox hoped to raise one dollar for each of Canada’s 24 million people. His effort began with little fanfare as he left St. John’s, Newfoundland in April and ran the equivalent of a full marathon every day. Fox had become a national star by the time he reached Ontario; he made numerous appearances with the public, businessmen and politicians in his efforts to raise money for research. He was forced to end his run outside of Thunder Bay after 143 days and 5,280 kilometres when his cancer spread to his lungs. His hopes of overcoming the disease and completing his marathon ended when he died nine months later.
Fox was the youngest person ever named a Companion of the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian award. He won the 1980 Lou Marsh Award as the nation’s top sportsman and was named Canada’s Newsmaker of the Year in both 1980 and 1981. Today, millions of people in over 60 countries participate in the annual Terry Fox Run, first held in 1981 and now the world’s largest one-day fundraiser for cancer research; over C$500 million has been raised in his name. Considered a national hero, many buildings, roads and parks have been named in Fox’s honour across the country.
Early life and cancer
Fox was born July 28, 1958 in Winnipeg, Manitoba to Rolly and Betty Fox. Rolly was a switchman for the Canadian National Railway. Terry had an elder brother, Fred, a younger brother, Darrel and younger sister, Judith. His family moved to Surrey, British Columbia in 1966 then settled in Port Coquitlam in 1968. His parents were dedicated to their family, and his mother was especially protective of her children; it was through her that Fox developed his stubborn dedication to whatever task he committed to do. His father recalled that he was extremely competitive, noting that Terry hated to lose so much that he would continue at any activity until he succeeded.
He was an enthusiastic athlete, playing soccer, rugby and baseball as a child. His passion was for basketball and though he stood only five feet tall and was a poor player at the time, he sought to make his school team in grade eight. His physical education teacher and basketball coach at Mary Hill Junior High School suggested that he consider cross-country running instead. Fox had no desire for the sport, but took it up because he respected and wanted to please his coach. He was determined to continue playing basketball however, even if he was the last player on the team. Fox played only one minute in his grade eight season, but dedicated his summers to improving his play. He became a regular player in grade nine, and earned a starting position in grade ten. In grade 12, he co-won his high school’s athlete of the year award with his best friend Doug Alward.
Initially unsure if he wanted to go to university, Fox’s mother convinced him to enroll at Simon Fraser University, and expressing a desire to become a physical education teacher, he studied kinesiology. He tried out for the junior varsity basketball team, earning a spot ahead of more talented players due to his determination.
On November 12, 1976, as Fox was driving home to Port Coquitlam, he became distracted by nearby bridge construction, and crashed into the back of a pickup truck. While his car was left undrivable, Fox emerged with only a sore right knee. He again felt pain in December but chose to ignore it until the completion of his basketball season. By March 1977, the pain had intensified and he finally went to hospital where he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of cancer that often starts near the knees. Fox believed his car accident weakened his knee and left it vulnerable to the disease though his doctors argued there was no connection. He was told that his leg had to be amputated and he would require chemotherapy treatments, but that recent medical advances meant he had a 50 percent chance of survival. It would have been just 15 percent two years before. The statement enforced a belief in Fox on the value of cancer research.
With the help of an artificial leg, Fox was walking three weeks after his amputation. He then progressed to playing golf with his father. Doctors were impressed with Fox’s positive outlook, stating it contributed to his rapid recovery. He endured sixteen months of chemotherapy and found the time he spent in the British Columbia Cancer Control Agency facility difficult as he watched fellow cancer patients suffer and die from the disease. Fox ended his treatment with a new purpose. He felt that he owed his survival to medical advances and wished to live his life in a way that would help others find courage.
Rick Hansen, working with the Canadian Wheelchair Sports Association, invited Fox to try out for his wheelchair basketball team in the summer of 1977. Although he was undergoing chemotherapy treatments at the time, Fox’s energy impressed Hansen. Less than two months after learning how to play the sport from a wheelchair, Fox played for the national championship in Edmonton. He won three national championships with the team, and was named an all-star by the North American Wheelchair Basketball Association.
Marathon of Hope
The night before his surgery, Fox was given an article about Dick Traum, the first amputee to complete the New York Marathon. The article inspired him; he embarked on a 14-month training program, telling his family he planned to compete in a marathon himself. In private, he devised a greater plan. His experiences in hospital upset Fox, who became angry at how little money was dedicated to cancer research in Canada. He intended to run the length of Canada in the hopes of increasing cancer awareness, a plan he had initially only told Alward about.
Fox ran with an unusual gait, as he was required to hop-step on his good leg due to the extra time the springs in his artificial leg required to re-set after each step. He found the training painful. The additional pressure he had to place on both his good leg and his stump led to bone bruises, blisters and intense pain. He found that after about 20 minutes of each run he crossed a pain threshold and the run became easier.
In August 1979, Fox competed in a marathon in Prince George, British Columbia where he finished in last place, ten minutes behind the nearest competitor. His effort was met with tears and applause from the other participants. Following the marathon, he revealed his plan to his family. He initially hoped to raise $1 million, but later sought to raise $1 for each of Canada’s 24 million people.
Canadian Cancer Society letter
Fox began by sending a letter to the Canadian Cancer Society on October 15, 1979. He announced his goal and appealed for funding. Fox wrote:
” My name is Terry Fox. I am 21 years old, and I am an amputee. I lost my right leg two-and-a-half years ago due to cancer. The night before my amputation, my former basketball coach brought me a magazine with an article on an amputee who ran in the New York Marathon. It was then I decided to meet this new challenge head on and not only overcome my disability, but conquer it in such a way that I could never look back and say it disabled me.
But I soon realized that that would only be half my quest, for as I went through the 16 months of the physically and emotionally draining ordeal of chemotherapy, I was rudely awakened by the feelings that surrounded and coursed through the cancer clinic. There were faces with the brave smiles, and the ones who had given up smiling. There were feelings of hopeful denial, and the feelings of despair. My quest would not be a selfish one. I could not leave knowing these faces and feelings would still exist, even though I would be set free from mine. Somewhere the hurting must stop….and I was determined to take myself to the limit for this cause.
From the beginning the going was extremely difficult, and I was facing chronic ailments foreign to runners with two legs in addition to the common physical strains felt by all dedicated athletes.
But these problems are now behind me, as I have either out-persisted or learned to deal with them. I feel strong not only physically, but more important, emotionally. Soon I will be adding one full mile a week, and coupled with weight training I have been doing, by next April I will be ready to achieve something that for me was once only a distant dream reserved for the world of miracles – to run across Canada to raise money for the fight against cancer.
The running I can do, even if I have to crawl every last mile.
We need your help. The people in cancer clinics all over the world need people who believe in miracles.
I am not a dreamer, and I am not saying that this will initiate any kind of definitive answer or cure to cancer. But I believe in miracles. I have to.
Terry Fox, October 1979 ”
He composed a second letter to various corporations seeking donations for “gas, a vehicle, running shoes, and money respectively.” Fox also sent other letters asking for grants to buy a running leg. He observed here that while he was grateful to be alive following his cancer treatment, “I remember promising myself that, should I live, I would rise up to meet this new challenge [of fundraising for cancer research] face to face and prove myself worthy of life, something too many people take for granted.” The Ford Motor Company donated a camper van, while Imperial Oil donated fuel and Adidas gave him his running shoes. Fox turned away every company that requested he endorse their products and refused any donation that carried conditions; he insisted that nobody was to profit from his run.
Although skeptical of his dedication, the Cancer Society agreed to support Fox once he had gained the support of sponsors but requested he get a medical certificate from a heart specialist that stated he was fit to attempt the run. He was diagnosed with Left ventricular hypertrophy—an enlarged heart—a condition commonly associated with athletes. Doctors warned Fox of potential risks he faced as a result though they did not consider his condition a significant concern. They agreed to endorse Fox’s run on the promise that he would stop immediately if he began to experience any heart problems.
Trek across Canada
The Marathon began on April 12, 1980. Fox dipped his right leg in the Atlantic Ocean near St. John’s, Newfoundland, and filled two large bottles with ocean water. He intended to keep one as a souvenir and pour the other one into the Pacific Ocean upon completing his journey at Victoria, British Columbia. He was supported on his run by Alward, who drove the van and cooked meals, and by his brother Darryl.
Fox was met with gale force winds, heavy rain and a snowstorm in the first days of his run. He was initially disappointed with the reception he received, but was heartened upon arriving in Port aux Basques, Newfoundland where the town’s 10,000 residents presented him with a donation of over $10,000. He left the Maritimes on June 10 and faced new challenges entering Quebec due to his group’s inability to speak French. He was left weary by drivers who continually forced him off the road. Fox arrived in Montreal on June 22, one-third of the way through his 8,000 km journey, having collected over $200,000 in donations. He spent additional time in Montreal after the Canadian Cancer Society asked him to delay his schedule so as to arrive in Ottawa for Canada Day, a plan Fox agreed to only after being convinced it would aid fundraising efforts.
“Everybody seems to have given up hope of trying. I haven’t. It isn’t easy and it isn’t supposed to be, but I’m accomplishing something. How many people give up a lot to do something good. I’m sure we would have found a cure for cancer 20 years ago if we had really tried”
Fox crossed into Ontario at the town of Hawkesbury on the last Saturday in June. He was met by a brass band and thousands of residents who lined the streets to cheer him on while the Ontario Provincial Police gave him an escort throughout the province. Despite the sweltering heat of summer, he continued to run 26 miles per day. Upon arriving in Ottawa, Fox met Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Governor General Ed Schreyer and was the guest of honour at numerous sporting events in the city. He performed a ceremonial kickoff in front of 16,000 fans who gave him a standing ovation at a Canadian Football League game. His journal reflected his growing excitement at the reception he had received as he began to understand how deeply moved Canadians were by his efforts.
A crowd of 10,000 people met Fox in Toronto where he was heralded in Nathan Phillips Square. As he ran to the square, he was met on the road by many people who joined him in running, including National Hockey League star Darryl Sittler who presented Fox with his 1980 All-Star Game jersey. The Cancer Society estimated it collected $100,000 in donations that day alone. As he continued through southern Ontario, he was met by Hockey Hall of Famer Bobby Orr who presented him with a cheque for $25,000. Fox considered meeting Orr the highlight of his journey.
As his fame grew, the Cancer Society scheduled him to attend an increasing number of functions and give more speeches. Fox attempted to accommodate any request that he believed would raise money, no matter how far out of his way it took him. He bristled, however, at what he felt were media intrusions in his personal life—The Toronto Star reported at one point that he had gone on a date. He was left unsure of who he could trust in the media after negative articles began to emerge, including one by the Globe and Mail that characterized him as a “tyrannical brother” who verbally abused Darryl and claimed he was running because he held a grudge against a doctor who misdiagnosed his condition, claims he referred to as “trash”.
The physical demands of running a marathon every day took its toll on Fox’s body. Other than at the request of the Cancer Society while in Montreal, he refused to take a day off, even on his 22nd birthday. He frequently suffered shin splints and an inflamed knee. He developed cysts on his stump and suffered dizzy spells. Fox rejected calls for him to seek regular medical checkups, and dismissed suggestions he was risking his future health. At one point he suffered a soreness in his ankle that would not go away. Although he feared he had suffered a stress fracture, he ran for three more days before seeking medical attention, and was relieved to learn he only suffered from tendinitis and that it could be treated with painkillers.
In spite of his immense recuperative ability, Fox found that by late August he felt exhausted before he began his day’s run. On September 1, outside of Thunder Bay, he was forced to stop briefly after suffering an intense coughing fit and experiencing pains in his chest. Unsure of what else to do, he resumed running as the crowds along the highway shouted out their encouragement. A few miles later, experiencing a shortness of breath and still suffering the pain in his chest, he asked Alward to drive him to the hospital. He feared immediately that he had run his last mile. The next day he held a tearful press conference announcing that his cancer had returned and spread to his lungs. As a result, he was forced to end his run after 143 days and 5,280 kilometres. While others offered to complete the run for him, Fox refused, stating that he wanted to complete his marathon himself.
Fox had raised $1.7 million when he was forced to abandon the Marathon. He realized that the nation was about to see what the disease did, and hoped that it could lead to greater generosity. A week after his run ended, the CTV Television Network organized a nationwide telethon in support of Fox and the Canadian Cancer Society. Supported by Canadian and international celebrities, the five hour event raised $10.5 million. Among the donations were $1 million each by the governments of British Columbia and Ontario, the former to create a new research institute to be founded in Fox’s name, and the latter an endowment given to the Ontario Cancer Treatment and Research Foundation. Donations continued throughout the winter, and by the following April, over $23 million had been raised in Fox’s name.
Supporters and well wishers from around the world inundated Fox with letters and tokens of support. At one point he was receiving more mail than the rest of Port Coquitlam combined. Such was his fame that one letter addressed simply to “Terry Fox, Canada” was successfully delivered. British Columbia named him to the Order of the Dogwood, the province’s highest award, while the government of Canada made him a Companion of the Order of Canada, the youngest person to be so honoured.
Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame commissioned a permanent exhibit, while he was named the winner of the Lou Marsh Award for 1980 as Canada’s top athlete in recognition of his achievement. He was named Canada’s Newsmaker of the Year and the Ottawa Citizen described the national response to his marathon as “one of the most powerful outpourings of emotion and generosity in Canada’s history”.
Fox returned to hospital several times for chemotherapy treatments; however, the disease continued to spread. As his condition worsened, Canadians hoped for a miracle while Pope John Paul II sent his prayers from the Vatican. Doctors turned to experimental interferon treatments, though its effectiveness against osteogenic sarcoma was unknown. Fox suffered an adverse reaction to his first treatment, but continued the program after a period of rest.
He was re-admitted to hospital in June 1981 with chest congestion and developed pneumonia. Fox fell into a coma and died at 4:35 a.m. PDT on June 28, 1981 with his family at his side. The Government of Canada ordered flags across the country lowered to half mast, an unprecedented honour that was usually reserved for statesmen. Addressing the House of Commons, Trudeau stated that “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”.
Fox’s funeral, held before 40 relatives and 200 guests, was broadcast on national television while hundreds of communities across Canada held their own memorial services. A public memorial service was held on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, and Canadians again overwhelmed Cancer Society offices with donations.
Nearly 30 years after his death, Fox remains a prominent figure in Canadian folklore. A 1999 national survey named him as Canada’s greatest hero, while he finished second to Tommy Douglas in the 2004 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation series The Greatest Canadian. Over 1.2 million votes were cast for the series. The Terry Fox Monument in Ottawa, one of several that exist across the country, is part of The Path of Heroes, a federal government initiative that seeks to honour the people that shaped the nation.
Terry Fox Run
One of Fox’s earliest supporters was Isadore Sharp, founder of the Four Seasons Hotels. Sharp had lost his own son to cancer and offered Fox and his companions free accommodation at his hotels where he could. He donated $10,000 and challenged 999 other businesses to do the same. He also proposed an annual fundraising run in Fox’s name. Fox agreed, but insisted that the runs be non-competitive. There were to be no winners or losers, and anyone who participated could run, walk or ride. Sharp faced opposition in organizing the run. The Cancer Society feared that a fall run would detract from its traditional April campaigns, while other charities believed that an additional fundraiser would leave less money for their causes. Sharp persisted, and he, the Four Seasons Hotels and the Fox family organized the first Terry Fox Run for September 13, 1981.
Over 300,000 people took part and raised $3.5 million in that first run. Schools across Canada were urged to join the second run, held September 19, 1982. School participation has continued since, evolving into the National School Run Day. The run, which raised over $20 million in its first six years, grew into an international event as over one million people in 60 countries took part in 1999, raising $15 million that year alone. By the run’s 25th anniversary, more than three million people were taking part. Grants from the Terry Fox Foundation, which organizes the runs, have helped Canadian scientists make numerous advances in cancer research. The Terry Fox Run is the world’s largest one-day fundraiser for cancer research, and over $500 million has been raised in his name. The 30th Terry Fox Run will be held in September 2010.
Steve Fonyo and Rick Hansen
Terry Fox was not the first person to attempt to run across Canada. Mark Kent was the first person to do so, completing his run in 1974 in an effort to raise money for the Canadian team at the 1976 Summer Olympics. While he lived, Fox refused to let anyone else complete the Marathon of Hope, promising to finish himself once he recovered. Steve Fonyo, an 18-year-old who suffered from the same form of cancer and likewise had a leg amputated, sought in 1984 to duplicate Fox’s run, calling his effort the “Journey for Lives”. Leaving St. John’s on March 31, Fonyo reached the point where Fox was forced to end his marathon at the end of November, and completed his trans-continental run on May 29, 1985 after 14 months. The Journey for Lives raised over $13 million for cancer research.
Canadian Paralympic athlete Rick Hansen, who had recruited Fox to play on his wheelchair basketball team in 1977, was similarly inspired by the Marathon of Hope. Hansen, who first considered circumnavigating the globe in his wheelchair in 1974, began the Man in Motion World Tour in 1985 with the goal of raising $10 million towards research into spinal cord injuries. As Fonyo had, Hansen paused at the spot Fox’s run ended to honour the late runner. He completed his world tour in May 1987 after 792 days and 40,073 kilometres. Hansen raised over $26 million and crossed through 34 countries.
British rock star Rod Stewart was so moved by the Marathon of Hope that he co-wrote and dedicated the song Never Give Up on a Dream, off his 1981 album Tonight I’m Yours, in Fox’s honour. He also called his 1981–1982 tour of Canada the Terry Fox Tour. Fox was again named the Newsmaker of the Year for 1981, while Canada Post announced the production of a commemorative stamp in 1981, bypassing its traditionally held position that stamps honouring people not be created until ten years after their deaths.
A stretch of the Trans Canada Highway outside of Thunder Bay near where Fox ended his run was renamed the Terry Fox Courage Highway and an oversized statue of him was erected as a monument. Several buildings across the country have been named in his honour. A new school in a suburb of Montreal was re-named Terry Fox Elementary School shortly after he died, while the Port Coquitlam school he graduated from was renamed Terry Fox Secondary School on January 18, 1986. In total, 14 schools and 15 roads across the country are named after Fox.
Following his death, the British Columbia government christened a previously unnamed mountain in the Canadian Rockies in the Selwyn range as Mount Terry Fox, and the area around it is now known as Mount Terry Fox Provincial Park. The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker CCGS Terry Fox was commissioned in 1983. The Royal Canadian Mint produced a special dollar coin in 2005 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Marathon of Hope. It was their first regular circulation coin to feature a Canadian person. His mother, Betty Fox, was one of eight people to carry the Olympic Flag into BC Place Stadium at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. These games saw the Terry Fox Award first awarded to Olympic athletes who embodied Fox’s characteristics of determination and humility in the face of adversity.
Fox’s story was dramatized in the 1983 biopic The Terry Fox Story. Produced by Home Box Office, the film aired as a television movie in the United States and had a theatrical run in Canada. The film starred amputee actor Eric Fryer as Fox along with Robert Duvall and was the first film made exclusively for pay television. The movie received mixed but generally positive reviews, but was criticized by Fox’s family over how it portrayed Terry’s temper. The Terry Fox Story was nominated for eight Genie Awards, and won five, including Best Picture and Best Actor.
A second movie, titled Terry, and focused on the Marathon of Hope was produced by the CTV television network in 2005. Fox was portrayed by Shawn Ashmore. Unlike Fryer, Ashmore is not himself an amputee; digital editing was used to superimpose a prosthesis over Ashmore’s real leg. The film was endorsed by Fox’s family, and portrayed his attitude more positively than the first movie had. Canadian National Basketball Association star Steve Nash, who himself was inspired by Fox when he was a child, directed the 2010 documentary Into the Wind, which will be aired on ESPN as part of its 30 for 30 series.