The agony and the ecstasy of Terry Fox

Warren Gerard September 15 1980

The agony and the ecstasy of Terry Fox

Warren Gerard September 15 1980

He wasn’t suddenly smitten, but early last week Terry Fox knew something was terribly wrong. The hopping, running 22-year-old amputee was well over the halfway mark in his coast-to-coast odyssey to show Canada he could do it—and to raise funds for cancer research. From April 12, when he dipped his artificial limb into the Atlantic Ocean at St. John’s and began his run, until last week and 5,342 km later, Terry Fox had become a national symbol of courage, and some close to him said even stubbornness. But it wasn’t to end as Terry Fox thought, and as every Canadian hoped, reminded daily as they were by the catchy jingle on radio and television, Run Terry, Run. Rather, it ended on the Thunder Bay bypass headed for the Red River Road in Northern Ontario. For two days, maybe three, he hadn’t felt right—but he wasn’t about to quit. Then, at the 29-km point on Tuesday’s run, he recalled, “There was hardness of breath. I was coughing, I started to choke. I didn’t know what was going on.” In severe pain, he still wouldn’t quit. People were lining the road ahead and he wanted to run out of people before he quit. “There was no way I was going to stop running, not with all those people there.” So he ran another mile and then there were no more people. And for Terry, no more road.

He was taken to Port Arthur General Hospital. Canadian Cancer Society officials had been talking about a sore ankle and then about taking x-rays of his lungs. The first set showed that his left lung had partly collapsed. “They said it could have been caused by an infection, but I could tell right away. I asked them if it could be cancer—these guys have seen this before—and they said it could be a tumor.”

His parents, Roily and Betty Fox, flew from their home in Port Coquitlam, B.C., to be with Terry. The cancer that had caused him to have his leg amputated had returned, this time to his lungs. That afternoon, his silent father on one side of a stretcher bed, his mother, unable to hold back the emotion, on the other, Terry held a press conference: “Do you want to ask questions or should I just say what I want?” He went ahead. “I didn’t think this would happen, it was an unbelievable shock. I mean, I’ve been doing great, doing those 26 miles every day, up those hills, I had less than 2,000 to go. I thought I was lucky as I could get. Well, you know I had primary cancer in my knee 3 1/2 years ago, and now the cancer is in my lungs, and I really have to go home and have some more x-rays, and maybe an operation that will involve opening up my chest, or more drugs. I’ll do everything I can. I’m gonna do my very best, I’ll fight, I promise I won’t give up.”

Later, Roily Fox was heard to say: “I think it’s unfair. Very unfair.” He said it for the nation. In homes, offices and factories, in the newspapers, on radio and television, there was an outpouring of emotion across the country: it just wasn’t fair. “I don’t feel that this is unfair,” Terry said. “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.”

Terry and his parents flew to Vancouver on a small chartered jet. It landed and taxied to an isolated terminal where a stretcher and an ambulance were waiting. He had ordered a change in the arrival location to avoid reporters and Cancer Society officials. Later he relented and, at a press conference at the Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, he spoke once more, fighting a persistent and obviously painful cough. Wearing his MARATHON OF HOPE T-shirt, he said: “I did my very best.” And in his determined way he said he wanted to return to complete his journey.

During the run, Cancer Society officials found out just how stubborn and determined Terry was. Even though they made repeated requests that he have regular medical checkups, he refused: “There’s no doctor in the world who has had an amputee who’s doing anything on an artificial leg like I am. If I went to see a doctor, he’d have a pessimistic approach to me.”

It was as if he were inspired, and nothing, no one, would change his heart. When he first thought of the idea three years ago even his mother, Betty, despite knowing intimately her son’s stubborn gutsiness, told him he was “crazy.” He went to see Blair MacKenzie, executive-director of the B.C. and Yukon division of the Cancer Society, who said that when he first saw the young, curly-headed youth limp into his office on a metal-and-plastic leg he was skeptical. “We get a lot of requests that are a little off-centre, so I said, fine, organize it yourself, and he did. I was really taken with him.”

Terry organized a dance and approached Vancouver businessmen for support. “I’m not a dreamer,” he said in his appeals for aid, “and I’m not saying that this will initiate any kind of definitive answer or cure to cancer, but I believe in miracles. I have to.” At the same time, Terry, a B-average student at Simon Fraser University, had been training. At first he hobbled through the streets of Port Coquitlam, for almost a kilometre, then he increased the distance by the same amount each week—up to 42 km a day. He won over some skeptics, but the group that saw him off to St. John’s last April was small—his family, an airline representative, Blair MacKenzie and his two children, and two other Cancer Society officials. “No one could possibly have seen the magnitude of this,” MacKenzie says now. “This is the most significant thing in the 42-year history of the Cancer Society.”

As Terry, in his odd hop-and-run style, moved westward, the country became more aware of what he was doing, On May 18, he was in Sherbrooke, N.S., saying the trip so far was a “piece of cake.” On June 4, he was in Fredericton, N.B.,losing weight and having problems with his artificial leg. But now the money was coming in—$100,000, and the $1-million mark looked good. On June 21 he was in Quebec: “At a press conference nobody knew what we were talking about.”

On a couple of occasions he was nearly run off the road by transport trucks, and police barred him from the Trans-Canada Highway as a traffic hazard. He was pelted by hailstones as big as golfballs and the leg continued to fall off, and to hurt. On his way he met Governor-General Ed Schreyer and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who said he didn’t have time to run with Terry. He met his hockey heroes, Darryl Sittler and Bobby Orr. Sittler later said he would carry on the run if that’s what Terry wanted. In Toronto, the crowds were overwhelming—10,000 at city hall—and cops were seen to cry.

There were reports of his bad temper along the route, that he felt exploited by the Cancer Society—and others who wanted to make a buck for Terry and themselves—but he refused for himself, and he defended the Cancer Society. At the point where he stopped in Northern Ontario, out of sight of the crowds, proud, still determined, Terry Fox had done something that no individual had ever done before—he had raised almost $2 million for cancer research.

At week’s end he was still in hospital, in good spirits. Meanwhile, the country is in a flurry of fund-raising for cancer research. Contributions are coming from everywhere. Governments, cities, small communities are making pledges. The CTV network said it would open up four hours of prime-time Sunday-night television for a tribute to Terry Fox. Pledges will be taken. One radio station, CKFM, in Toronto has raised more than $236,000. The country is in a frenzy of giving—not so much, perhaps, for cancer research, but for Terry Fox.

Meanwhile, he is undergoing chemotherapy. The prognosis varies. Dr. Raymond Bush, director of the Ontario Cancer Foundation, says that during the last few years the success rate for treatment of Terry’s type of cancer has improved from 20 per cent to anywhere between 60 and 70 per cent. Yet other medical experts from Vancouver say that Terry’s cancer is one of the most dangerous, spreading frequently to other parts of the body, especially the lungs. One cancer expert said bone cancer hits young people between ages 10 and 30 especially hard, and that there is only a 10-per-cent survival rate over a five-year period.

Terry bravely promises to return, to finish the run he started, next year, the year after—maybe. But he accomplished what he set out to do. It was summed up by Sheila Fox (no kin to Terry) of Kitchener, Ont., a Cancer Society representative, who said: “You know, they say the United States is built on a history of heroes while Canada has none to look up to. But when I looked down the street today and saw Terry, I said, ‘There’s a hero.’ ”

‘He is more than you can see’

Late last week Canadian writer June Callwood offered her moving tribute to Terry Fox on CBC Radio's Commentary.

Terry Fox is home in British Columbia now to face an uncertain future, leaving the rest of us to face our uncertain selves. The mystery of why Terry Fox put himself into the vault of so much pain is unknowable. Terry Fox, a teenager endowed with fond parents, superb reflexes, handsomeness, newly crowned as his high school's athlete of the year, has a sore leg one day and three days later is mutilated, his leg cut off just above the knee. His high hopes for what Terry Fox was, a marvelous athlete, and what Terry Fox would become, something associated with sports, stopped cold. The Terry Fox he was played basketball from a wheelchair; the Terry Fox he would become wasn’t clear.

How does one handle such a savage blow to self-image? One way is to deny that anything has changed. One leg is not less than two; it is more. He’ll prove it. He’ll run across the country in jogging shorts flaunting that declaration. He will persevere in being Terry Fox, an undiminished, unquenchable Terry Fox.

The other aspects of what was called the Marathon of Hope are real. The goal of raising money for cancer research already has realized more donations than any single effort in the Canadian Cancer Society’s history. Also, Terry Fox achieved massive attitudinal change toward amputation. Also, he showed that cancer, however brutally it treats the cringing flesh, can’t defeat the spirit.

The central truth, however, is that a youth wanted back the cards he had been dealing with in the beginning—all those winning cards. He wanted to feel two-legged again, an obsession that took him 5,000 km and then beyond the edge of endurance.

Fixed in our memory in this uneasy summer has been the sight of the one-legged youth, his face drained, hopping mile after mile on that punishing pavement. His quest grips us, his search for wholeness is a spiritual longing deep in us all. He asserts that he is unique. He has wonders locked within. He is more than you can see. He is not a wounded boy on an overcrowded planet. He matters.

People wept to see him run. They wept for his pain; they wept for his foolish pride. They wept with pity. And they wept most of all for envy to be like Terry Fox, wholehearted and unashamed. They longed to care that much, about anything. And to go for it. All out.