Thirty-five years ago today, Terry Fox set off on a run that has raised over $700 million for cancer research. It all began with a humble goal and the generosity of a small Newfoundland town.
When Fox dipped his prosthetic leg into the ocean off of St. John's, N.L., on April 12, 1980, he dreamed of raising a total of $10,000.
But when he saw that the town of Channel-Port Aux Basques, N.L., alone raised $10,000, their generous response fired his imagination.
"Terry thought, 'If they can raise a dollar for every citizen, why can't we raise a dollar for every Canadian in Canada?'" says Fred Fox, Terry's older brother, who works for the Terry Fox Foundation.
After that initial fundraising boost, Terry's goal for the Marathon of Hope grew to $24.17 million, which mirrored Canada's population at the time.
This year, to commemorate the run's 35th anniversary, the foundation hopes to raise $35 million. Serendipitously, that works out to roughly $1 per Canadian based on today's population.
"It would be wonderful," Fred says.
Today, all Running Room stores in Canada will host walk/run events at 8:30 a.m. to start this year's Terry Fox Run fundraising season. The official annual run takes place on Sept. 20.
Marathon of Hope's humble start
Terry was only 18 years old when he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in 1977. Doctors amputated his right leg 15 centimetres above the knee. During Terry's subsequent chemotherapy treatments, he struggled with watching other young people die from cancer.
'If they can raise a dollar for every citizen, why can't we raise a dollar for every Canadian in Canada?' - Fred Fox. remembering his brother Terry's quote
"[Terry] often said that getting cancer probably made him a more caring person," Fred says of the growing empathy that drove his brother to train for the cross-country run fundraiser.
Terry wrote "very passionate" letters to companies hoping they could help on his journey, says Fred. Adidas gave Terry running shoes, Ford provided a camper van, Esso offered gas vouchers.
His family and friends in Port Coquitlam, B.C., organized a fundraiser to cover other costs during his trip.
"I am not a dreamer, and I am not saying that this will initiate any kind of definitive answer or cure to cancer," Terry wrote in a letter to the Canadian Cancer Society, asking them to support his run. "But, I believe in miracles. I have to."
When Terry departed on his journey, few people knew what he was doing, his brother says.
But as he ran an average of 42 kilometres each day and visited schools and communities along the route, people and the media started to talk about the young man with the prosthetic leg running across Canada.
"They saw that Terry was committed, dedicated," says Fred. "His personality, his honesty, his integrity were 100 per cent genuine. And that's why they jumped on board and gave him the support he needed."
By the time he crossed into Ontario, Terry was a household name.
But on Sept. 1, 1980, Terry's own cancer brought the run to a halt near Thunder Bay, Ont. With nearly 150 days and more than 5,000 kilometres under his belt, Terry returned to B.C. to get treatment for the cancer that had spread to his lungs.
CTV soon organized a five-hour telethon that raised $10 million. Five months before Terry died, he reached his goal of $24.17 million.
'Cubans love Terry Fox'
Today, Terry's influence is still felt around the world, and his foundation has raised nearly $700 million. He is particularly popular in Cuba, which hosts the largest Terry Fox run outside Canada. Some two million people participate each year, Fred estimates.
A Cuban music group even created a music video celebrating the run and what it stands for.
Watch Cubanos en la Red's music video:
In 2010, Terry's mom, dad and sister, Judith, visited Cuba for the annual run. One day, Judith walked into a small store. The cashier couldn't speak any English, but became very animated when she recognized the figure on Judith's Terry Fox Run shirt.
"Cubans love Terry Fox," says Fred, who believes they appreciate the story of how much an average person can accomplish simply through perseverance.
"Terry was just an average Canadian kid," his brother says, adding that Terry would be the first to admit he wasn't the biggest, fastest, strongest or even the smartest, and always had to work a little bit harder to achieve his goals.
"He was ordinary, but did an extraordinary thing."
150 lives saved by foundation's research
That extraordinary thing, which still compels so many people to donate money to cancer research, has saved Canadian lives, says Victor Ling, the Terry Fox Research Institute's president and founding director.
The institute was launched in 2007 thanks to funds from the Terry Fox Foundation, which garnered a plethora of donations after the run's 25th anniversary. The institute aims to increase the turnaround time between laboratory discoveries and practical solutions for cancer patients.
In an ongoing project, the foundation has teamed up with health centres in major Canadian cities to screen heavy smokers for early stages of lung cancer using a CT scan and other parameters, Ling says.
In a pilot study to better detect lung cancer, doctors discovered early stage cancers in about every four out of 100 people screened.
"There's over 150 people now in Canada that are alive because of this [project]," he says.
Terry would be very surprised but happy to learn that his efforts didn't stop when he died, his brother says.
"He was willing to sacrifice himself to make a difference in other people's lives."
Marathon of Hope by the numbers:
- Terry Fox ran more than 5,000 kilometres during training.
- He originally aimed to raise $10,000.
- Fox ran roughly a marathon a day, averaging 42 kilometres daily. He covered 5,373 kilometres over 143 days.
- Fox reached his goal for one dollar per Canadian ($24.17 million) on Feb. 1, 1981. He died less than five months later.
- More than 300,000 people participated in the first Terry Fox Run in 1981, raising $3.5 million.
- The Terry Fox Foundation has raised nearly $700 million since the Marathon of Hope. That's $130,281 and change for every kilometre Fox ran.
- Fourteen schools and 15 roads in Canada bear Fox's name.
- Millions of people in nearly 25 countries participate in Terry Fox fundraising events each year, including the national school run day and the Terry Fox Run.
- The largest Terry Fox run outside of Canada is in Cuba. Approximately two million people participate in that country's event every year, Fox's brother Fred estimates. Cuba has a population of just over 11 million.
— The Terry Fox Foundation, The Terry Fox Research Institute