Sunday, April 12, 2009

Terry Fox: April 12, 1980

“Terry did not lose his fight. Perhaps he finished all he had to do. Terry is like a meteor passing in the sky, one whose light travels beyond our view, yet still shines in the darkest night.”Four Seasons' President, Isadore Sharp

There are people, places and events that affect you differently throughout your life. Your perceptions of them seemingly twist and turn with the times. Certain experiences from childhood evolve with greater meaning as you age.

Terry Fox at Mile 0 in St. John's, Newfoundland

It was twenty-nine years ago today, April 12, 1980 (2:45 pm) at “Mile 0” in St. John’s, Newfoundland, when twenty-one year old university student, Terry Fox dipped his artificial leg into the Atlantic Ocean, marking the start of his courageous Marathon of Hope westward across Canada. With his brother Darrell and best friend Doug Alward following alongside in a Ford Econoline van, the Marathon of Hope was a quest he intended to complete in his hometown of Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. Terry was equipped with eight pairs of running shoes and two extra legs.

Inspired by an amputee who ran the Boston marathon on one leg, Terry prepared himself physically and mentally for fourteen months, lifting weights and running over 5,000 kilometres on his new leg. Before the era of massive corporate sponsorships, the young athlete then set out on his humble grassroots effort to raise money and awareness to fight the disease that had forced the amputation of his right leg, six inches above the knee, and to honour those he left behind in the cancer ward. There were meager funds allotted to cancer research at the time. The Marathon of Hope was not for him but for cancer patients across Canada who desperately needed medical advances.

My memories of Terry Fox are as vivid today as they were twenty-nine years ago. The image of the handsome, curly-haired man with the artificial leg, running coast to coast, through wide expanses of Canadian highway to raise funds for cancer, is nothing less than iconic. That will never change.

Terry initially hoped to raise $1 million for cancer research. With increasing national support, however, Terry realized that raising one dollar per Canadian for a total of $24 million was not inconceivable. He was right. The country was spellbound.

Sadly, on September 1, 1980 in Thunder Bay, Ontario, half way through Terry’s journey, he was forced to stop as the disease he was running across Canada to combat, had spread to his lungs. Doctors found tumors the size of a lemon and a golf ball, in each lung respectively.

Terry Fox, the very name itself is synonymous with words like “courage” and “hero”, and immediately transports me back to my seven year old self. I can remember 1980 distinctly: Grades 1 and 2, cold Ontario weather, the music, the fashions, chilly highways, news broadcasts, my parents gasping as they watched Terry on a stretcher speak to the media, our teacher asking us to find out who Terry Fox was and going door to door with large yellow envelopes raising money for Terry's cause. I've forgotten how hard it is to get people to donate money, especially if you're a kid. But we carried on, making our rounds in small groups. It was gratifying knowing that we were part of something amazing: Terry’s dream.

“I'm not sure there are many stories like that around the world. Who grew up and had someone enter their lives like that, who came from nowhere to become a national hero all for the right reasons and motives?”—NBA MVP and filmmaker, Steve Nash

During the Marathon of Hope, Terry Fox ran 3339 miles in total. Waking at dawn, he ran 26 miles each day (12 miles in the morning and 14 in the afternoon) the equivalent of a marathon every day for 143 days, on an artificial leg.

Although disappointed, Terry bravely returned home for cancer treatment and was later awarded several national and international accolades, including Canada’s highest: the Order of Canada. The motto "desiderantes meliorem patriam" recognizes those who "desire a better country". Indeed.

Just before dawn at 4:35 am, on June 28, 1981, a month before his 23rd birthday, Terry Fox passed away with his loving family at his side and a nation of mourners sending prayers from coast to coast.

"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."former Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau

Since his death, the Terry Fox Foundation has raised over $400 million for cancer research worldwide.

Perceptions grow, as you grow. They’ve been with you through your journey. Their meaning deepens as your journey deepens. Somewhere in the back of my mind it's 1980 and Terry is out there hitting the pavement, rain or shine, in search of hope for Canadians ravaged with disease. Somewhere in the back of my mind, is my seven-year old self watching in bewilderment. My childhood is deeply connected to his journey.

Back then I saw Terry as the brave, hard-hitting adult who ran a marathon on an artificial leg. It looked frightening and painful and yet he was doing this for others. However, now I also see Terry as a charming young guy—just a shy kid really, who had a dream as wide and as deep as his heart and as beautiful as his smile. A young man robbed of his youth and a future filled with possibilities, all due to a disease: osteogenic sarcoma (bone cancer) which today, ironically due to the fund raising efforts he inspired, would not likely have caused his death or even the amputation of his leg. To lose this lovely human being at such a tender age, to such suffering and especially amid his blood, sweat and tear-stained journey, is incomprehensible.

Terry Fox’s passion and determination still inspires the world. For me what it comes down to is this: for a time, I was in the world at the same time as Terry Fox, in the same country to boot (and once even in the same city). I feel honoured to have been alive at the time and to have witnessed his incredible feat. Twenty-nine years later and his story still leaves me breathless, one that takes on a deeper meaning as I grow: it's a part of my childhood, my life.

In His Own Words:

“Kids my age and younger, and you just can’t leave something like that and forget it. And I couldn’t anyway, I had to try and do something about it.”

“If there’s anyway I can get out there again and finish it I will.”

“I want to try the impossible to show that it could be done.”

“Right from the very beginning, I’ve had the competitive attitude, the attitude that I can beat my disability. And the fact that I know I can. Yeah, this is the way I’ve always been.”

"The running I can do, even if I have to crawl every last mile."

"I remember promising myself that should I live I would prove myself deserving of life."

“Dreams are made possible if you try.”

“I hope what I’ve done has been an inspiration.”

“Not only people in BC get cancer.”

“I hope people will continue where I left off here.”

“I want to set an example that will never be forgotten.”

“Two nights before my amputation a friend of mine brought in a magazine, of a man who ran on an artificial leg from New York. Right then I told myself, if he can do it I can do it. And it was a dream that for some reason it popped into my head I wanted to run across Canada, right then it did. Right then it popped in and it never left me. And it was a goal that I was going to prove to myself that I was no different than before. And I wanted to prove to other people what can be done. But I want to tell you something that’s very important, because that goal changed when I went through my year and a half of chemotherapy...'cause it changed to raise money for the Canadian Cancer society."

"I knew what I was undertaking. I knew it was going to be tough and it wouldn’t be easy. I had a very big goal. Going through my chemotherapy treatments, I really met a lot of people who were dying of cancer. People my age and people I got to know. It had a deep impact on me. A deep impact inside…."

“I don't feel this is unfair. That's the thing about cancer. I'm not the only one. It happens all the time, to other people. I'm not special. This just intensifies what I did. It gives it more meaning. It'll inspire more people. I could have sat on my rear end, I could have forgotten what I'd seen in the hospital, but I didn't.”

“I could not leave knowing these faces and feelings would still exist, even though I would be set free from mine.”

“How many people do something they really believe in? I just wish people would realize that anything's possible, if you try; dreams are made, if people try. When I started this run, I said that if we all gave one dollar, we'd have $22 million for cancer research, and I don't care man, there's no reason that isn't possible. No reason. I'd like to see everybody go kind of wild, inspired with the fund-raising.”

"I guess that one of the most important things I've learned is that nothing is ever completely bad. Even cancer. It has made me a better person. It has given me courage and a sense of purpose I never had before. But you don't have to do like I did...wait until you lose a leg or get some awful disease, before you take the time to find out what kind of stuff you're really made of. You can start now. Anybody can."

“People thought I was going through hell. Maybe I was partly, but still I was doing what I wanted and a dream was coming true and that, above everything else, made it all worthwhile to me. Even though it was so difficult, there was not another thing in the world I would have rather been doing.

“I got satisfaction out of doing things that were difficult. It was an incredible feeling. The pain was there, but the pain didn't matter. But that's all a lot of people could see; they couldn't see the good that I was getting out of it myself.”

"Even if I don't finish, we need others to continue. It's got to keep going without me." (July 10, 1980)

Terry Fox 1958-1981

Browse the Web

Read Terry's letter requesting support
Visit the Terry Fox Foundation website
Visit CBC archives (brilliant footage).
Terry Fox Monument in Thunder Bay ( panoramic view)
30 Years of Hope
Terry Fox Retrospective in Photos, 30 Years Later
Terry Fox Foundation Flickr
Darrell Fox reading from Terry's diary
Share your Stories
Remembering Terry Fox: Terry's family looks back
Tour of Hope
Greatest Canadian Nominee profile
The Greatest Canadian Photo
Video tribute
Running Free
ESPN Video
Original Van of Terry Fox
Terry Fox Remembered by Darryl Sittler
Nash's Hero? Terry Fox
New Plaque Honours Terry Fox

Sources: Terry Fox Foundation, CBC, YouTube, Wikipedia, Globe and Mail, Vancouver Sun, Toronto Sun


  1. I remember him. I was born the year he lost his leg but as a very young girl I saw the movie they made about him and it made such an impact on me it became a perm part of my childhood. I didn't know then I would lose my own father to cancer as a young adult. Thank you for reminding me of this important man. Ive made a donation and am going to wear my Tour of Hope (with awesome van) shirt with pride for the courage Terry brought through the decades.

  2. Mandy: thank you so much for your lovely comment. It made my day.

    I'm so sorry to hear that you lost your father at such a young age. It puts Terry's journey into perspective: there's just so much suffering owing to one disease.

    I think it's awesome that you're going to wear your shirt. High five!

    Terry Fox. Never Forget.

    Best wishes and thank you for visiting :)

  3. Is there any place that I can see this movie, I have not seen it since I was young. I love the movie.

  4. Hello Jackie, there are two film versions of Terry's story. The latter (better) one called "Terry" aired in 2005 and can be purchased via this link:

    The 1983 film was called "The Terry Fox Story" and might be on Amazon!


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