On 40th anniversary, Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope message is essential

“Being self-centred is not the way to live. The answer is to try and help others.”

— Terry Fox.

It would be easy, here and now amid all the world’s seemingly ever-worsening troubles, to search for hope and feel as though there’s little to be found.

Daily news updates are grim. Places of solace and refuge — be they sports’ steady promise of escaping into entertainment every night, carefree walks through the community, or even sitting in a coffee shop to catch up with an old friend — have been shuttered by the COVID-19 crisis. All of that is just the latest, too, in what has already been an impossibly long year.

Hope, now, may not be easy to find. And that makes remembering those who found it — even when it was hardest — essential. Terry Fox was one of them. On April 12, 1980, he began his cross-country Marathon of Hope. Four decades later, his message resonates louder than ever.

“I’m not a dreamer,” Fox once said, “and I’m not saying this will initiate any kind of definitive answer or cure to cancer, but I believe in miracles. I have to.”

Terry Fox on his Marathon of Hope run across Canada, Sept. 1980. (Files/CP)

Seeing him in person wasn’t necessary to make his image indelible. Curly hair, simple white t-shirt with a Canadian flag emblazoned across his chest, the prosthetic leg that never stopped him and the police escort following close behind.

It’s still heart-stopping just to think about. There he is. Running, just him and the winding thousands of kilometres worth of highway that lay ahead and the thousands of kilometres already behind him. Somewhere in that image, there’s the cancer, too.

“People take it the wrong way when I say I want to run alone,” Fox said. “But I have to do it my own way. I have to really concentrate to ignore the pain and keep going. Sometimes I’m actually crying while I’m running but I just don’t think about it.”

Fox first noticed the pain in 1976 and assumed it stemmed from an accident earlier that year when he rear-ended a truck on the highway. By March of 1977, the pain was so bad he could barely move. A bone scan confirmed it was more than residual damage from the accident. Fox was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma — a type of bone cancer that often starts in the knee.

The night before undergoing surgery, Fox read an article about Dick Traum — an amputee who once ran the New York City Marathon — and decided he would run across Canada to raise awareness and money for cancer research.

Glossing over that line of thinking would be a mistake. As he stared down he gravest moments of his young life, Fox’s thoughts went to how he could make the world even just a little bit better. Other thoughts could have been there, too. Doubts, maybe. Fear would be understandable, too, to say the least.

The one that guided him in the months that followed was that steadfast hope — hope that a better future was out there and that he could do something to inch the world closer towards it.

At age 18, doctors amputated his right leg 15 centimetres above the knee. Months of chemotherapy followed. During them, Fox witnessed the suffering of countless others grappling with cancer.

“What he thought of was those that he had left behind in the cancer ward who couldn’t shut off the pain if they wanted, whereas he could,” Darrell Fox, Terry’s younger brother told Dan Robson and Catherine McIntyre for an oral history of Terry’s journey. “When he started in St. John’s, we already knew that there was nothing in his power that would stop him.”

Rigorous training followed. As did the pains accompanying it — the kind many runners know well, the shin splints and the blisters; and the kind few do, like the bleeding from where his prosthetic met his leg — before Fox’s journey began on the shores of St. John’s Newfoundland, covering a marathon’s worth of distance daily.

“On the second day, when Terry stopped to have breakfast, I asked to sit down and eat with him,” Mike Sullivan, an OPP officer who accompanied Fox, said. “I couldn’t believe what he ate. He had a milkshake, pancakes, it just kept coming to the table.

“We sat there shooting the breeze for a while, and then I said, ‘I’ve got to ask: When you’re running, what do you think about?’ He said, ‘I only think about the next mile.’ That focus and determination still amazes me.”

One mile at a time, Fox captivated a country, and still does even as the journey didn’t end how he dreamed. Fox’s cancer spread to his lungs and forced a halt to his run 143 days and 5,373 kilometres after it began. Less than a year later, he passed away, a month shy of his 23rd birthday.

Since his death, more than $750 million has been raised for cancer research through the annual Terry Fox Run, and what he left behind goes far beyond that tangible number.

The marathon we’re all now running in 2020 is different. But the desire to help others is eternal. And hope, the kind Fox showed the world, always endures — even in the hardest times.

“I’ve said to people before that I’m going to do my very best to make it, I’m not going to give up. But I might not make it. If I don’t, the Marathon of Hope better continue.”

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