In 1977 a young man was diagnosed with cancer. He was eighteen-years-old and an athlete, a basketball player and distance runner, and with the diagnosis of osteosarcoma (a cancer that often starts in the area of the knee) he learned that he would lose his leg.
His right leg was amputated, though within three weeks he was walking on a prosthetic leg. He was given a 50% chance of survival, poor odds that would have been poorer only a year or two before, when the chances were only 15%. These were the mathematics of survival, and the numbers struck him as important. Such advances in treatment could mark the line between life and death.
He endured sixteen months of chemotherapy at a cancer facility. Around him he saw other cancer sufferers. Around him he saw the ebb and flow of hope, the slow touch of despair and the suddenness of loss. Around him he saw friends suffer and die, falling to a disease that touched so many.
When he left his life was before him, a new life to face and live. He joined a wheelchair basketball team and quickly became an all-star, winning three national championships. And yet he wanted more. He remembered those months in a cancer facility, and wanted to find a way to bring courage to others. He remembered, too, his time as a distance runner.
He began to run. He had an odd gait, on his new prosthetic leg, a stride marked by a little skip on his good foot. step-skip step, step-skip step, step-skip step…
He embarked on a 14 month training program. He would run a marathon. And yet even as he trained for and eventually completed his first marathon (a run of 26 miles), he was devising something far grander.
He wanted to give others hope, to give them courage. And he was angry. He remembered friends dying at the cancer facility, and was angry at how little awareness there was of cancer, this disease that killed so many, and shaped the lives of so many more. There was so little money for the funding of research, and yet that research could mark the line between life and death: he had never forgotten the mathematics of survival. 15% to 50%. 15% to 50%. Perhaps with a little more funding the math could be different still: 15% to 50% to 100%. Here’s where the mathematics of survival merged with mathematics of hope.
His vision was large indeed. He would run across Canada. He would run the equivalent of a marathon every day. Every day. He would run from the Atlantic to the Pacific. What he envisioned was a Marathon of Hope, an opportunity to draw awareness to the needs of cancer patients and to the necessity of funding cancer research.
He began on April 12, 1980, dipping his right leg in the Atlantic Ocean near St. John’s, Newfoundland. In the early days he met with wind, rain and snow. Yet he ran.
A marathon every day. By the time he reached Montreal, a third of the way through, he had raised $200,000. Yet he was becoming famous. By the time he entered Ottawa on Canada Day, his story was beginning to reach across the country and around the world. Despite the physical toll of what he was doing, he would not turn down an interview, an event, a chance to speak: any chance, no matter how small, to raise awareness and funding was a chance he had to take. He could not forget the faces he left behind in the cancer facility, the faces on which hope was slowly fading.
And he ran.
The miles piled up. An immense road stretched behind him, and yet an equally long one stretched in front. Yet he ran. No matter the cost. He had shin splints, an inflamed knee, tendonitis in his ankle, cysts on his stump. Yet he ran.
And every day more money came in. In the end he raised over 12 million dollars for cancer research. And yet the end came prematurely. His body was breaking down. Each day he was exhausted even before he started his run. On September 1st, outside Thunder Bay, the 23-year-old had a series of intense coughing fits and felt pain in his chest. He stopped, tried to recover briefly, and continued on. Yet he could not find air, breath escaping him, and the pains in his chest grew.
Driven to a hospital, he learned that his cancer had returned, and spread to his lungs. At last, his run was over. Chemotherapy treatments failed to halt the advance of his cancer, and on June 28, 1981, he died.
His name was Terry Fox.
He had run his last step, but the Marathon of Hope continues. Every year, across the county and world, cities will hold a Terry Fox Run, a race of remembrance. The dream of hope lives on, and each year more is pledged to fight cancer. The Terry Fox foundation has raised more than half a billion dollars in his name for the cause.
Terry Fox was a hero. Not because he had one leg and did something extraordinary. This is too simple, too reductionist. It is not a story about his specialness, but about his gift of determination and hope. It is a story about how a person stepped (or ran) beyond themself. It is about human dignity, about how we can face our challenges, whatever they may be. It is about sacrifice. It is about how someone gave of themself for the greater good of others. Gave everything, even their life.
Whether it is the story of Christ accepting his death on the cross for the sins of others, or Frodo trudging up the slopes of Mount Doom, there is something about these stories that is touching. About determination in the face of death, and the humility to accept such consequences to provide for others.
Martyrs are rare, and yet sometimes their example can touch lives. Thousands of people will run in Terry Fox’s name on September 19, 2010, and I hope to be one of them. I have entered my local Terry Fox Run, and plan to race 10km on my sore little feet. What is that, after what he did? In the end Terry ran 3,339 miles (5,373 km)over 143 days. The immensity of this feat is scary. I can’t do this, can't do so much. I can only do a little. But sometimes much can be made of many little things.
My little thing is to run 10km and to seek pledges in support of cancer research. I know times are tough for many, and I understand if people can’t afford to offer support, or already offer support to other equally important charities. But, if you can give something, it would be appreciated – for those who suffer now, and for those who will suffer in the future, and for one who suffered everything, and gave everything, in the past.
You can donate via this link, or check out the Terry Fox Foundation on your own and support that way.
Link to My Terry Fox page
My sincerest thanks.