One of the most iconic images in Canadian history is that of Terry Fox, his face a mask of pain as he shifts his weight to his artificial leg in an awkward hop-skip motion.
And yet Fox carried that expression for 143 days and 5,373 kilometres across Canada, hobbling on one leg with a simple yet powerful message. Mankind must defeat cancer.
In August 1979, Fox competed in a marathon in Prince George, finishing in dead last, 10 minutes behind the second last runner. And yet his run so inspired participants and spectators that people were left in tears and awe at his courage.
Thirty-four years later, Canadians are still brought to tears by Fox’s Marathon of Hope across Canada, despite the fact he died before he could complete it. There are few heroes so beloved by Canadians as Terry Fox, who raised $1.7 million before succumbing to cancer at the tender age of 22.
Since then he has inspired more than a half billion dollars in donations for cancer research. He finished second in voting to Tommy Douglas in the CBC program The Greatest Canadian in 2004. Those who weren’t even alive when he ran are humbled by his accomplishments.
In order to encourage more donations to his Marathon of Hope in 1980, Terry Fox ran a marathon every day – 42 kilometres – in the sweltering heat of summer. Despite sickness and the return of cancer by September, this time to his lungs, Fox averaged a staggering 37.6 kilometres each day.
No person, before or since, has managed to unite Canadians so strongly in a singular and common purpose of raising money to find a cure for cancer.
And when he was forced to abandon his marathon, he threw the torch to the next runners with the acknowledgment that this was about more than a kid from Port Coquitlam:
“I don’t feel that this is unfair. That’s the thing about cancer. I’m not the only one, it happens all the time to people. I’m not special. This just intensifies what I did. It gives it more meaning. It’ll inspire more people. I just wish people would realize that anything’s possible if you try; dreams are made possible if you try.”
Although Terry Fox put cancer on the map, the annual run he inspired has sagged in recent years. Fewer participants are turning out and some communities have been forced to cancel the run altogether.
That may be the worst thing we could do for the memory of one of Canada’s greatest sons. He deserves better, as does everyone who has ever lost somebody to cancer. I lost my aunt to lung cancer last year.
Never give up hope. Never give up the fight. Just think back to Terry Fox and those lonely miles of highway, putting one foot in front of the other, running for a better world for us all.