Terry Fox Pushed It to the Limit for Cancer Research


Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope path. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Terry Fox was 18 years old when he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. His right leg was amputated 15 cm above the knee four days after the diagnosis. He passed away four years later – one month shy of his 23rd birthday. The impact Terry Fox continues to have on not just Canadians, but worldwide, is astounding. The Foundation and Research Institute that bear Terry Fox’s name have already played a vital role in cancer research breakthroughs, and the number of funded scientific investigations as a result of Terry’s Marathon of Hope continues to increase yearly.

Upon diagnosis with osteosarcoma, the doctors told Terry his chances of survival were 20-50% and that he would undergo a relatively new treatment regime known as chemotherapy. The experience of chemotherapy was tough on Terry, but it wasn’t the treatment itself; it was witnessing his fellow patients suffer, many of them young children. Terry later explained why he planned to run across Canada; “Somewhere, the hurting must stop… and I was determined to take myself to the limit for those causes.”

A marathon is 42.2 km, which is about the distance from Millbrook to Lakefield. With no traffic it’s 35 minutes in a car. Terry ran close to a marathon a day for 143 days straight, on one leg, up and down hills through torrential rain, howling wind, and scorching heat.

Terry started his Marathon of Hope in St John’s Newfoundland April 1980. Four months later his run was cut short just outside Thunder Bay. One of his lungs had collapsed.

When the doctors looked at Terry’s X-Rays, they observed two large lung tumours; one the size of a lemon, the other a golf ball. Terry had been running a marathon a day with severely compromised lung function for weeks. Terry had taken himself to the ultimate limit, just like he said he would.

Terry’s original goal with the Marathon of Hope was to raise $1 million for cancer research. Before Terry’s passing on June 28, 1981, his run had raised $24.17 million. Two and half months later, on Sept 13, 1981, the first Terry Fox Run raised $3.5 million. Now, the Terry Fox Run is held on 5 different continents and has raised $750 million for cancer research.

One of the best predictors of discovering treatments or cures for a given disease is the amount of money allocated for the study of that disease. If Terry was diagnosed today, the doctors would tell him and his family that the survival rate for osteosarcoma is 65-90%, a significant increase compared to when Terry was diagnosed. The dramatic improvement in managing osteosarcoma is a result of improved surgical procedures, more accurate imaging, and the discovery and advancement of radiation technologies. These discoveries were made possible by money and resources.

When a charity raises money, it’s always interesting to look at how much they raise vs. how much goes into research. For example, for every dollar The Heart and Stroke Foundation raises, 56 cents goes to life-saving research. The Canadian Cancer Society; 61 cents of every dollar goes to cancer research. The Terry Fox Foundation runs a much tighter business model; for every dollar raised by the Terry Fox Foundation, 82 cents goes to life-saving research.

The research arm of the Terry Fox Foundation, called the Terry Fox Research Institute, was launched in 2007 with the primary objective of funding research that has the best chance at reaching the clinic. To ensure a pronounced impact is realized by the donations, the institute targets money and resources for the “bench to bedside” transition. The institute works to get life-saving medicine into the hands of patients as quickly as possible. To be eligible to receive funds from the Terry Fox Research Institute, universities and institutions sign a Memorandum of Understanding, which outlines strict rules mandating the sharing of data and methodologies, and promoting a collaborative pan-Canadian research effort. Terry’s vision of bringing people together for cancer research is not only realized through donations, but also through extensive collaboration between the best cancer research programs in the country.

The Terry Fox Run is typically held the second Sunday after Labour Day. This year the Terry Fox Run will be held on September 16th. If you decide to donate, feel comforted that the majority of the money is going to research, and further still, the research programs receiving that money have signed a pact to work together in a collaborative effort to beat cancer.

By Brennan Smith, PhD



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