Canadians celebrate the life of Terry Fox

25 years after Terry Fox had to stop his cross-country run, Canadians celebrated his life and goals this weekend. Many call Fox their true hero.

Twenty-five years after Terry Fox had to stop his cross-country run, Canadians celebrated his life and goals this weekend. Many call Fox their true hero.

On Sept. 1, 1980, Fox - who had lost a leg to cancer - had to stop his one-legged run of daily Marathons of Hope across Canada near Thunder Bay, Ont., when cancer returned to ravage his body. He died in 1981. He was 22.

Since then, annual events around the world -- often marathons with thousands taking part -- have raised more than $360 million for cancer research.

In Canada Friday, more than three million school students from across the country ran or walked to raise money for cancer research, and to remember Fox.

  • More than 300 New Brunswick schools participated.
  • Organizers said 100 per cent of P.E.I. schools were involved.
  • In Nova Scotia, 432 schools -- representing about 130,000 students -- registered to participate in the National School Run Day.
  • The historic town of Lunenburg was closed for the event as 5,000 students paraded through the streets.
  • In Alberta, 430 thousand students and Premier Ralph Klein participated.
  • In Montreal, 2,000 students took part in the run.

Twelve thousand have registered for a Sunday run across the Confederation Bridge that joins New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. The 13-kilometre stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway will be closed to traffic between 6 a.m. and 1 p.m. to allow people to walk, jog or wheelchair across the span.

Impact on cancer research

Cancer experts said the $360 million raised has helped Canadian researchers make major strides.

Gerry Johnston, president of the National Cancer Institute, said instead of simply treating the symptoms of uncontrolled cell growth, doctors now use drugs that help shut down that growth. In Toronto, Johnston said: "At the time that Terry Fox was doing his run, we still as a research community didn't understand what cancer was."

Johnston, who is also associate dean of research at the Dalhousie University faculty of medicine added: "The whole landscape has changed quite dramatically in the last 25 years. Canadian researchers, many of them Terry Fox supported, are certainly at the forefront and in many cases are leading the charge."

Support from the Terry Fox Foundation has led to a number of discoveries by Canadian scientists.

Ontario's Brenda Gallie identified the genetic mutation that leads to retinoblastoma, a childhood cancer of the retina. Her work has led to treatments that can save a child's eye -- an unlikely result even 15 years ago.

Patrick Lee -- now based at Nova Scotia's Dalhousie University -- spearheaded the study of oncolytic viruses. Oncolytic viruses can shut down cancerous cells without harming healthy surrounding cells. The field is now the focus of a major program of the Terry Fox Foundation.

Dr. Andrew Padmos, commissioner of Cancer Care Nova Scotia and chairman of the Dalhousie Cancer Research Program, was working in Saudi Arabia in 1980, but news of Terry Fox's feat reached him there. He said at that time chemotherapy was based on a primitive understanding of the growth cycle of cancer cells.

As understanding grew, doctors were able to stage and combine different forms of treatment for maximum impact. Scientists are now studying specific forms of cancer at a molecular level, and their work is beginning to translate into new and effective treatments.

Instead of treating the symptom of uncontrolled cell growth, doctors are now able to use drugs like Herceptin, for some forms of breast cancer, or Gleevec, for chronic myeloid leukemia, to interfere with the signals that tell the body to produce those cells.

Padmos said advances in understanding and treatment mean a person who developed osteogenic sarcoma, the cancer that struck Terry Fox, would stand a much better chance today.

Surgeons are now better able to remove such cancer while saving a limb. Follow-up treatment is also significantly more effective. "Because we understand the disease better we're able to treat it in a much more sophisticated way. The percentage of cures (of osteogenic sarcoma) is double what it was in 1980."

Padmos said if Terry Fox was to be treated today: "There's a far greater likelihood that Terry would have been running on his own legs."

Ceremony in Victoria, B.C.

Friday, Terry's mother Betty Fox thanked Canadians for continuing to believe in her son's dream to find a cure for cancer.

She was at the unveiling of a life-size statue of her son in Victoria. The Terry Fox statue will be erected at Mile Zero in Victoria, marking the western end of the Trans-Canada Highway where Fox planned to finish his marathon in 1980.

Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh presented the Terry Fox Foundation with a cheque for $10 million from the federal government for cancer research.

Mrs Fox said: "Thank you, Victoria. Thank you, Canada," as thousands of students who had participated in the National School Run Day cheered. "What a wonderful, wonderful event. I haven't found the right words for today," said an overwhelmed Fox. "Other than to simply say, it is simply marvellous. Talk to me in a couple of days when all this settles down."

A Fox monument was erected last spring in St. John's, N.L. to honour the start of his cross-country marathon.

Terry Fox ran 5,373 kilometres over 143 days in 1980. His fundraising goal was to raise $1 dollar for cancer research for every Canadian, which would have been about $24 million in 1980.

Born in Winnipeg and raised in Port Coquitlam, B.C., he died in June 1981.