The Legacy of Terry Fox

The Legacy of Terry Fox

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

The Legacy of Terry Fox

I just wish people would realize that anything is possible if you try . . . dreams are made if people try.

Terry Fox

I was a young reporter, not long at The Toronto Star, when my editor asked me to find a young man named Terry Fox—he was somewhere in Newfoundland. She told me Terry had lost a leg to cancer and was trying to run across Canada to raise money for cancer research. “See if he’s for real,” she said. By mid-afternoon, I was speaking to Terry Fox.

His voice was young, hopeful and happy as he told me about his Marathon of Hope. His dream was to run 5,300 miles across Canada and raise $1 million to fight the disease that had claimed his leg. It was April 1980, and Newfoundland weather was harsh and unpredictable. He told me about being buffeted by high winds, about running in snow and freezing rain. His good leg was strong and muscular, and his artificial leg was made of fibreglass and steel. The run was painfully difficult, but he was cheery and confident, and at the end of our interview, I was certain he was unstoppable. He also made sure I understood one more thing: He didn’t think of himself as disabled.

After that, we spoke every week, and I learned he was from Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. He was the second of four children, and his parents were Betty and Rolly. His family was close-knit, hardworking and competitive. They all loved to win.

Terry wanted to play basketball when he was in grade eight, and despite his small size, his physical education teacher, Bob, noticed the “little guy who worked his rear off.” After three practices, Bob suggested Terry might be better suited to another sport, but Terry persisted, and finally made the team. When Bob said, “If you want something you have to work for it, because I’m not interested in mediocrity,” Terry heard him.

So Terry worked hard, and by grade ten, he and his friend Doug shared the athlete of the year award, winning it again in their last year of high school. His first year at Simon Fraser University, he made the junior varsity basketball team—there were more talented players than he, but none with a greater desire to win.

Terry was studying kinesiology and thinking of being a physical education teacher himself, when a pain in his knee he assumed was a sports injury sent him to the doctor. But it wasn’t a sports injury. To his great shock, Terry learned he was suffering from osteogenic sarcoma, a rare bone cancer. It was March 1977, and he was eighteen years old.

He hardly understood what the doctors told him. What was a malignant tumour? They explained they would amputate his leg and follow up with chemotherapy to catch any stray cancer cells circulating in his blood. The night before his operation, his basketball coach brought him a story about a one-legged runner who competed in the Boston Marathon. Already Terry began to wonder, Could he do something like that, maybe even run across Canada, with one leg?

Terry faced the loss of a leg as another challenge. “No one is ever going to call me a quitter,” he said. He learned to wear his artificial leg, played golf with his dad and began a gruelling sixteen-month course of chemotherapy. He lost his hair, and was weak from nausea. In the cancer clinic, he heard young people crying out in pain, and he heard doctors telling patients they had a 15 percent chance of surviving.

When Terry left the clinic, he was more than a survivor; he had a new sense of compassion and responsibility. His hair grew back thick and curly. He’d been blessed with life, the greatest gift of all, and he was determined to live as an inspiration so that others might find courage from his example. While still undergoing chemotherapy, Rick Hansen recruited him to join a wheelchair basketball team. And then secretly, quietly, in 1979, he began training for his great dream—running across Canada.

He started with a quarter-mile run around a cinder track. It nearly killed him, but soon he was doing a half-mile, and then amazingly, a week later, he ran a full mile. He was drained but ecstatic. Terry ran and ran and ran. Sometimes the stump on his leg bled, and his mother, rarely at a loss for words, would bite her lip and turn away in tears. Betty and Rolly weren’t happy with his plan to run across Canada, but they knew all too well his strong and stubborn will. In a letter he wrote when he began seeking sponsorship, he said he felt privileged to be alive. He said: “I remember promising myself that should I live, I would rise up to meet this new challenge face-to-face, and prove myself worthy of life. That’s something too many people take for granted.”

With a handful of sponsors, the support of the Canadian Cancer Society, and a camper van donated by Ford of Canada and driven by his old friend, Doug, Terry began his Marathon of Hope. On April 12, 1980, he gazed for a moment out over the harbour in St. John’s, Newfoundland, dipped his artificial leg in the water, turned and started running.

Terry ran through the Atlantic provinces, then through Québec and Ontario, incredibly averaging a marathon— twenty-six miles—every day. Once in his diary he described his running as “the usual torture.”

All of Canada fell in love with him along the way. Creating images that will stay in our hearts forever, in sun, rain and early morning mist, Terry’s familiar lopsided gait took him through cities, towns and villages. Day-by-day his fame grew. There was something in his good nature, his simple words, sunburned good looks, astonishing strength and the greatness of his dream that brought many who saw him to tears.

He wanted to run, but believing that advances in research had saved his life, he was also determined to raise money for research. And so he often stopped along the way. Standing on picnic tables, he talked to crowds, kids and reporters, even Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. He’d visit schools and take off his artificial leg and show the children how it worked. As the miles passed, people began calling him a Canadian hero. He didn’t like that; he saw himself as just an ordinary person, even though hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people would wait to see him pass on the highways or at city halls, acknowledging his courage and cheering him on in accomplishing his dream.

And so it went that glorious summer of 1980: he ran 3,339 miles in 143 days. And then, on September 1, seven miles outside Thunder Bay, something felt terribly wrong in his chest. The pains were so bad, he wondered if he was having a heart attack. Whatever it was, he needed to see a doctor—quickly. The doctor confirmed his worst fears— the cancer was back, this time in his lungs. Terry had run his last mile. The Marathon of Hope was over.

Or so it seemed.

Terry was flown home the next day lying on a stretcher, with his parents Betty and Rolly at his side. He’d raised $1.7 million dollars for cancer research. Then, despite the sorrow felt by Canadians everywhere, something wonderful happened. As he lay in a hospital bed with the cancer-fighting drugs flowing silently into his body, the whole country went crazy raising money for cancer research— just as he hoped it would.

Terry bravely fought the disease another ten months, and all of Canada fought with him. Once, while watching a hockey game on TV, he saw a banner that read “KEEP ON FIGHTING, TERRY FOX!” strung along the stands. Despite the prayers of thousands, he died just before dawn on June 28, 1981, his family at his side. But before he died, he knew he had realized his dream. More than $23 million had been raised in his name—a dollar from every Canadian.

Canada was plunged into mourning. Flags flew at half-mast, condolences came from around the world and Prime Minister Trudeau personally paid tribute to Terry in the House of Commons. But the legacy of Terry Fox didn’t end there. In 2000, the twentieth anniversary of his Marathon of Hope, the Terry Fox Foundation—with Terry’s brother Darrell at the helm—raised $20 million.

Since Terry first dipped his leg in St. John’s Harbour, more than a quarter of a billion dollars has been raised for cancer research in Terry’s name. He became the youngest recipient of the Order of Canada, our nation’s highest civilian honour. In 1990, he was named Athlete of the Decade by The Sports Network (TSN), and has been unanimously proclaimed Canada’s greatest hero.

Just outside Thunder Bay, a section of the Trans-Canada Highway has been renamed the Terry Fox Courage Highway. Along it, on a hill overlooking Lake Superior near the spot where Terry was forced to stop, stands a nine-foot bronze statue of Terry in running stance, facing toward his western home. Terry inspired and united an entire generation of Canadians, and so the monument was designed joining east with west, and proudly displaying all provincial and territorial coats of arms and the Canadian maple leaf and beaver.

Every year in September, Terry Fox Runs are held across Canada and in fifty other countries, so that his dream now spans the world.

I run, or sometimes walk, every year in the Terry Fox Run. My favourite one was September 15, 1991, when I was pregnant and past my due date. I had intended to walk a symbolic kilometre for Terry, but it was a beautiful day, and I kept walking until, to my shock, I’d walked six kilometres. Not surprisingly, little David was born that night. Now he’s ten, a beautiful, dark-haired boy who loves soccer and hockey and baseball. He’s not the best player on the team, but his coaches love him because he’s so determined and works so hard. Just like someone else I knew, whose strong and youthful voice I first heard on the telephone so many years ago.

Leslie Scrivener
The Toronto Star
Toronto, Ontario

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