Terry Fox

Terry Fox: Defying the Human Condition

Terry Fox’s story is known by too few people (outside of Canada). After a malignant tumor in his right leg required the leg be amputated six inches above the knee, Terry determined to run across Canada to raise money for cancer research.The young Canadian hero’s Marathon of Hope began on April 12, 1980, and over $600 million has since been raised for cancer research in Canada and around the world through his foundation. His tale is well told in basketball star Steve Nash’s co-produced 30 for 30 ESPN documentary, Into the Wind.

Rather than rehash Nash’s excellent take on the history of Terry Fox, I’d like to consider his legend. Specifically, considering those of us living in his wake, how do we relate?

Relating to Legends

Compared to the billions of humans throughout history, a comparatively small handful of people are lionized. The rest of us come, go, and fade away. Not only do our lives feel ordinary, regret often rules our minds with an iron fist. “I should have lived this way, I ought to have done this or that…” Similar to the way many devout feel about their saints, “if I were an authentic person of faith, my life would look more like Saint So and So’s.”  At least, this is how I often feel when considering the extraordinary life of someone like Terry Fox. This syndrome could be worded, “My life is not dramatic, therefore it does not count.” I suspect this is the exact opposite takeaway Terry would want us to have from his life.

The positive qualities he possessed can be observed, learned from and emulated. Here’s an endeavor to consider a handful of qualities evident in Terry’s life and adventure:

Bite-Sized Discipline

On a daily basis, dressed in different circumstances, we all face the same challenges legends do. The difference being, we often get zero recognition.

Powerful lives, like landslides, often draw their power not from one isolated element, but from the cumulative weight of myriad smaller factors. Legacies are born one decision at a time. As many recovery groups like to say, “Do the next right thing.”

Looking back at Terry’s run, we have the liberty of retrospect. Terry did not. He had to hound reporters to show up for the beginning of the Marathon of Hope. Many days and weeks were spent in obscurity – in suffering.  Despite weariness and pain, Terry had a vision, an end goal. He disciplined himself one day, one step, at a time to press on.

Realizing the bite-sized approach Terry took is helpful. The memorable life we desire is suddenly reduced to a series of manageable decisions to live deliberately ( he put his shoes on, got out of the van and started down the road ). The big picture burden is relieved and we are free to live one day at a time. Are we living deliberately to achieve an end goal? Enough deliberate, disciplined decisions over time are likely to effect a successful outcome – our end goal.

Defying the Human Condition: Refusing Despair

I’m not a dreamer, and I’m not saying this will initiate any kind of definitive answer or cure to cancer, but I believe in miracles. I have to.[1]

Living as infinitesimally small beings, floating around a burning star in a massive universe has a way of paralyzing ambition. Paraphrasing Hamlet, we are prone to slings, arrows and countless natural shocks. Worst of all, perhaps, is how arbitrary many of these shocks seem. Personally, despair is a particularly vexing nemesis – which makes Terry’s optimism all the more admirable.

As a young man in his early twenties, it would have been easy to become jaded for experiencing cancer and losing a limb at his age. The Marathon of Hope had the potential to be despair inducing: constantly running into a headwind, often in agonizing pain; many locations did not come out to support the cause; drivers often ran Terry off the road; Terry and his traveling companions grew tired of each other. While remaining a realist, and acknowledging (bluntly) the discouragement, Terry maintained hope in his vision, and refused despair.

How he did this is not necessarily formulaic. The following factors appeared to play significant roles:

  • Passion for the cause
  • Compassion for others
  • A vision of the potential positive outcome
  • Faith in God, drawing strength from outside himself (Nash’s documentary seemed to ignore the spiritual component)
  • Competitiveness, a fiesty personality
  • Support from others (friends, family, strangers)

When I consider the causes and projects for which I’d like to be remembered, it could be beneficial to compare notes: can I find factors in my endeavors which roughly parallel those in Terry’s?

Identifying the Problem and Attempting a Solution

Terry identified a problem: cancer research and treatment, especially the kids affected by it, needed more funding. Rather than complaining about the problem, he came up with a proposed solution which:

  • Challenged him personally
  • Raised awareness in others
  • Practically effected change in the problem

Refusal to Sell Out

I’m not doing the run to become rich or famous.[2]

When personal profit becomes the primary driver behind a cause, the cause is diminished. When personal profit is a side benefit of a cause, the cause might be diminished. When personal profit is never accepted alongside a cause, the cause will never be diminished.

Passionate people often make a living from their passion. The key element being: they were pursuing, would be pursuing and will be pursuing their passion with or without personal financial benefits.

Terry made sure all benefits and promotions pointed to the cause.

Compassion: Narcissism vs. Selflessness

It took cancer to realize that being self-centered is not the way to live. The answer is to try and help others.[3]

Living for others is the ultimate form of selflessness. Terry was so overcome by the suffering of other cancer patients, many of them young children, that he (literally) laid down his life to bring them aid.

My wife and I are experiencing a crash-course in such character development, as we have welcomed two little foster children into our home for the past three months.  The amount of time required to take care of small children, especially those with unjust life baggage is a true sacrifice. Seeing the investment Terry made into others is encouraging. The sacrifices we make can leave a positive legacy in the world.

Did Terry Fox Make a Mistake?

I don’t feel that this is unfair. That’s the thing about cancer. I’m not the only one, it happens all the time to people. I’m not special. This just intensifies what I did. It gives it more meaning. It’ll inspire more people. I just wish people would realize that anything’s possible if you try; dreams are made possible if you try.[4]

Would the outcome have been different if Terry had been more proactive about his health? Did he set a bad example by steadfastly pressing on through pain? Questions like these are unavoidable considerations.

Maybe that’s why I’ve made it as far as I have – 2,521 miles. If I ran to a doctor every time I got a little cyst or abrasion I’d still be in Nova Scotia. Or else I’d never have started. I’ve seen people in so much pain. The little bit of pain I’m going through is nothing. They can’t shut it off, and I can’t shut down every time I feel a little sore.[5]

Second-guessing is a fickle hobby. As is often the case with athletes, Terry pushed himself into realms untouched by the majority of humankind.  Not only was he on a personal mission to prove cancer couldn’t disable him, his drive was fueled by zeal for the cause of helping others. Stopping represented everything he didn’t want to face: the temptation to quit; the possibility of more medical trauma; losing his freedom – failing.  Judging Terry for his decision to press on through pain is unfair.  Does the number of years survived represent a life well lived? I would argue that Terry lived more on his Marathon of Hope than many live in a lifetime.

If destiny and fate do exist, then Terry Fox fulfilled his – as evidenced by a legacy burning bright.

When Heroes Fall

How did Terry respond when death seemed inevitable?

 Even if I don’t finish, we need others to continue. It’s got to keep going without me.[6]

Be the change you want to see is a weighty saying, and a true one.  I often marvel at those who have a vision, but never realize it. Like Moses and the promised land, visionaries light the torch and pass it to others at great cost to themselves.  Veterans of World War II are good examples of heroes whose sacrifices benefited others at great personal expense.

Are we willing to live for dreams we may never inherit, for miracles we’ll never see? What happens to in societies where citizens are unwilling to live for others?

Concluding Thoughts

As a fellow cancer survivor, I typically feel unworthy to mention it. My case was detected early. The surgery and radiation occupied less than two months of my life. Residual effects are relatively minor, and I spend virtually no time concerned about helping find a cure. However, Terry’s clinic experience is one I understand:

 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.[7]

Each day, as I nervously awaited radiation, patients with far more advanced cancer would often sit nearby. Helplessness in the face of extreme sickness is daunting, it resides in tired eyes. Realizing that my own survival could be owed to research raised by Terry’s funding, and knowing the darkness cancer victims face, I’m awed at the tenacity of Terry Fox. His audacity in the face of despair is inspiring.

In light of Terry Fox’s example, here are some practical questions to ask:

How will I choose to live?

What causes will I fight for?

What endeavors are a waste of my time?

What do I need to change now?

DONATE to the Terry Fox Foundation


Are you familiar with Terry Fox’s story? What thoughts and emotions come to mind? Please share in the comments below.

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About The Author

Brian Erickson
The only noteworthy facts about RYK's founder, Brian, are his height (6'7"), and his fortunate status as a cancer survivor. Otherwise, he is an average guy who works hard, enjoys adventures (trail running, backpacking, biking, hoops), and makes his living as a graphic and web designer. Brian is heading towards his 10 year wedding anniversary with his high school sweetheart. Connect with Brian on Instagram, Twitter, or Google+