Terry Fox was the second of four children born to Betty and Rolly Fox, a switchman with the Canadian National Railway. Betty and Rolly met in Winnipeg, and all four of their children were born there: Fred (1957), Terry (1958), Darrell (1962) and Judith (1965). Tired of the harsh Winnipeg winters, Rolly transferred to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1966. The family moved west and eventually settled in Port Coquitlam, a community located about 27 km east of Vancouver.
Terry Fox was very determined from a young age, especially when it came to sports. In Leslie Scrivener’s biography, Terry Fox: His Story, she describes how, as an elementary school student, he was so committed to making baseball practice that he would arrive at the corner an hour early for his ride.
By the time he was in junior high school, basketball had become his favourite sport. Although he was only five feet tall in Grade Eight and had little natural ability, Fox was determined to make his school basketball team. His best friend, Doug Alward, also loved basketball and was a natural, playing on the first string of the Mary Hill Junior High Cobras. Bob McGill, their coach, suggested that Terry try cross-country running and wrestling instead. Fox did take up running, but did not give up on his dream of playing basketball. Hours of practice and sheer persistence paid off — Fox practiced every morning before school and throughout the summer. In Grade Eight, he was last on the team’s lineup and only played one minute all season. By Grade 10, he and Alward were starting guards on the Mary Hill Junior High basketball team. They also shared the school’s Athlete of the Year Award.
The following year, Fox was again chosen as a starting guard, this time with the Port Coquitlam High School Ravens. He also ran cross-country, and played soccer and rugby; and was co-winner (with Alward) of the school’s Athlete of the Year Award in Grade 12. By that time, Fox was the better basketball player, while Alward had become an accomplished cross-country runner. Fox’s determination and dedication were again recognized at Simon Fraser University, where he was chosen for the school’s junior varsity basketball team.
Diagnosis and Surgery
Fox first noticed the pain in 1976. In November of that year, he rear-ended a truck while driving on the highway — the car was a wreck, but Fox escaped without visible injury. The only problem was a sore right knee, which Fox assumed he must have hurt during the crash. The pain returned in December, but this time Fox believed it was a cartilage problem due to the stress of playing so much basketball. In February 1977, following the end of basketball season, he finally went to the Simon Fraser University (SFU) health centre, where he was given painkillers.
In early March, Fox returned from a training run in incredible pain, so sore he could barely move. The following day he went to a family doctor, who suspected the problem was serious. Rolly Fox drove his son to the Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, where they were quickly seen by an orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Michael Piper. From the X-rays, Piper suspected that Fox had osteogenic sarcoma, a type of bone cancer that often starts in the knee. His suspicions were confirmed following a bone scan on 4 March. Because the cancer spreads quickly, doctors felt Fox’s best chance for survival was amputation of his right leg, followed by chemotherapy.
Over the next couple of days, Fox was surrounded by family and friends, including Doug Alward. Fox’s classmates from the kinesiology program at SFU brought his homework to the hospital. Teammates stopped in to visit, as did Terri Fleming, Fox’s coach from Port Coquitlam High School. The night before his surgery, Fleming gave Fox a Runner’s World article about Dick Traum, an amputee who had run the New York City Marathon. The following morning, Fox showed the article to nurse Judith Ray. “Someday I’m going to do something like that,” he told her.
On 9 March 1977, when Fox was only 18, doctors amputated his right leg 15 cm above the knee.
Rehabilitation and Chemotherapy
Within weeks of his surgery, Fox was walking with the help of an artificial leg. Less than a month later, he was playing golf with his father. In addition to physiotherapy, Fox began a 16-month program of chemotherapy at the British Columbia Cancer Control Agency in Vancouver. Every three weeks he would visit the clinic, where he was given methotrexate and adriamycin. The drugs caused his hair to fall out and made him nauseous. Yet despite his suffering, he felt fortunate compared to others at the clinic, some of whom were dying. Not only did he feel compassion for them, but also a sense of responsibility that came with being one of the survivors.
In the summer of 1977, Fox received a phone call from Rick Hansen, who asked if he would like to join the Vancouver Cable Cars wheelchair basketball team. As with everything he did, Fox practiced hard, his hands blistered and bleeding as he learned a different way to play basketball, all while undergoing chemotherapy. By the end of the summer, he had been chosen for the team that would compete at the 1977 national wheelchair basketball championships in Edmonton. Fox played with the Cable Cars from 1977 to 1980, winning the national championship in 1978 and 1979 (the team won again in 1980, but by that time Fox had started his Marathon of Hope and had been replaced by veteran player Bill Inkster).
In the 1979–80 season, Fox was chosen for the all-star team of the North American Wheelchair Basketball Association. By that point he was playing three nights a week, using a wheelchair given to him as a gift by his father’s co-workers at Canadian National Railway. He would also train in his wheelchair along roads and pathways; not content with level surfaces, he climbed both Westwood and Burnaby Mountain in his wheelchair.
But Fox had another goal. During his months of chemotherapy, he witnessed the suffering of many others afflicted with cancer and was determined to do something to help. On the night before his surgery, he had read an article about Dick Traum, an amputee who had run the New York City Marathon; inspired by Traum’s example, Fox decided he would run across Canada to raise awareness and funds for cancer research.
When Fox first started training, he ran at night around the cinder track at the local junior high school. In mid-February 1979 he could run half a mile around the track; by the end of the month he was running a mile. His prosthetist, Ben Speicher, modified his prosthesis so that it could better withstand the impact of running. Even with the modifications, though, it was still awkward and uncomfortable. (See Terry Fox and the Development of Running Prostheses.) Characteristically, Terry persisted.
By mid-August, he was preparing for a race in Prince George, British Columbia. Although he had originally planned to run in the eight-and-a-half mile race, he ended up running the 17-mile (27 km) version with friend Doug Alward and brother Darrell. Fox finished last — but only 10 minutes behind the final two-legged runner, an impressive performance.
The Prince George race convinced Fox that he could start his run across Canada the following spring. With a start date in mind, it was time to tell his parents of his plan — until that point, only Alward and another friend, Rika Noda, had known anything about it. His mother, Betty, thought he was crazy. His father simply asked when he planned to start.
By the time Fox began his Marathon of Hope in April 1980, he had logged more than 5,000 km on training runs, and had enlisted the support of the Canadian Cancer Society and the War Amputations of Canada, as well as companies including Ford Motor Company, Imperial Oil and Adidas.
His letter to the Canadian Cancer Society eloquently sums up his motivation for the Marathon of Hope:
The night before my amputation, my former basketball coach brought me a magazine with an article on an amputee who ran in the New York Marathon. It was then I decided to meet this new challenge head on and not only overcome my disability, but conquer it in such a way that I could never look back and say it disabled me.
But I soon realized that that would only be half my quest, for as I went through the 16 months of the physically and emotionally draining ordeal of chemotherapy, I was rudely awakened by the feelings that surrounded and coursed through the cancer clinic. There were faces with the brave smiles, and the ones who had given up smiling. There were feelings of hopeful denial, and the feelings of despair. My quest would not be a selfish one. I could not leave knowing these faces and feelings would still exist, even though I would be set free from mine. Somewhere the hurting must stop... and I was determined to take myself to the limit for this cause.
…By next April I will be ready to achieve something that for me was once only a distant dream reserved for the world of miracles – to run across Canada to raise money for the fight against cancer.
The running I can do, even if I have to crawl every last mile.
We need your help. The people in cancer clinics all over the world need people who believe in miracles.
I am not a dreamer, and I am not saying that this will initiate any kind of definitive answer or cure to cancer. But I believe in miracles. I have to.
Terry Fox, October 1979
Marathon of Hope
On average, Fox would run about 42 km (roughly a marathon) a day through the Atlantic Provinces, Québec and Ontario. He was supported by long-time friend Doug Alward, who drove a van along the route, and by his brother, Darrell, who joined them in New Brunswick. The tension between Terry and Doug could get high at times, but Darrell was usually able to lighten the mood.
While media coverage was slow at first, communities in Newfoundland such as Grand Falls and Bishop’s Falls came out to support him. However, Fox was disappointed by their early reception in Nova Scotia, as few people in the province seemed to know about his Marathon of Hope. According to Fox’s diary, Prince Edward Island was more hospitable. He was disappointed again, though, to learn nothing had been arranged for them in Saint John, the capital city of New Brunswick. He and Alward decided to run through the city, anyway. It was even tougher in Québec — the Marathon of Hope hadn’t been publicized in the province, and he raised almost no money there.
That changed, however, due to the efforts of businessman Isadore Sharp, Bill Vigars of the Canadian Cancer Society’s Ontario division and journalist Leslie Scrivener of the Toronto Star, who wrote a weekly column on Fox’s progress (and later penned his biography).
By the time he reached Ontario, Fox was a national star, feted by thousands at appearances organized by the Canadian Cancer Society. Fox met Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, British actress Maggie Smith, and NHL greats Bobby Orr and Darryl Sittler, who presented Fox with his 1980 NHL All-Star sweater. Despite the crowds, it was also safer running in Ontario; on several occasions Terry had come close to being hit by cars or trucks while running across the Atlantic Provinces and Québec. In Ontario, the provincial police accompanied him.
However, Fox was forced to stop running just outside Thunder Bay, Ontario, on 1 September 1980, because the cancer had invaded his lungs. By this time, he had run for 143 days and covered 5,373 km. Although Fox vowed he would complete his cross-Canada run, he was unable to return to the road; he died less than a year later at the Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, British Columbia, only a month before his 23rd birthday.
Many schools, buildings, roads and parks around the country have been named in Fox’s honour, including a provincial park and a mountain in British Columbia. In 2004, Fox ranked second after Tommy Douglas in the CBC Television program “The Greatest Canadian.” Fox’s story has been told in books, television movies — the award-winning The Terry Fox Story (1983) and Terry (2005) — and the documentary Into the Wind (2010), which was co-directed by Steve Nash.
Fox’s goal to raise one dollar for every Canadian, or about $24 million, was reached on 1 February 1981, but fundraising has continued in his name. His bravery and determination have inspired many, including Steve Fonyo, Rick Hansen and Isadore Sharp, who organized the first annual Terry Fox Run in 1981. The Terry Fox Foundation, which now organizes the annual run, has raised over $700 million for cancer research. Millions of people in Canada and around the world participate every year in the Terry Fox Run, and in 2007 the Terry Fox Research Institute was established in Vancouver.
Terry Fox had Métis heritage through his mother’s side of the family. Betty Fox (née Wark) was the daughter of John Wark and Marian Gladue, whose own great-grandmother, Madeleine Poitras, was a Métis. However, Gladue was reluctant to discuss this aspect of her background, and the family did not realize they had Métis heritage until after her death in 2001. Many of the family have since proudly declared their heritage, including Terry’s brother, Darrell. Métis Nation British Columbia (MNBC) has confirmed his status and that of his daughter, Alexandra. In 2014, MNBC posthumously awarded the Order of the Sash to Terry Fox, “in recognition of his contribution and sacrifice to our nation, and for giving so much of himself in the name of human kindness.”
Honours and Awards
- Companion, Order of Canada (1980)
- Member, Order of the Dogwood (now Order of British Columbia) (1980)
- Lou Marsh Trophy (1980)
- Canadian Newsmaker of the Year, Canadian Press (1980 and 1981)
- Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame (1981)
- Person of National Historic Significance, Government of Canada (2009)
- Order of the Sash, Métis Nation British Columbia (2014)