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Betty Fox, mother of Terry Fox photographed this week in Prince Edward Island. Betty Fox has been on a marathon of her own, travelling and spreading the word that cancer research needs more money. (Nina Linton/Nina Linton for The Globe and Mail)
Betty Fox, mother of Terry Fox photographed this week in Prince Edward Island. Betty Fox has been on a marathon of her own, travelling and spreading the word that cancer research needs more money. (Nina Linton/Nina Linton for The Globe and Mail)

Obituary

Betty Fox, cancer-advocacy champion and mother of Terry Fox, dies Add to ...

Betty Fox, mother of cancer hero and Canadian icon Terry Fox, has died.

Ms. Fox, who was in her early 70s, had been suffering from complications from diabetes and arthritis. She is survived by her husband, Rolly, two sons, a daughter, and several grandchildren.

Ms. Fox was an ordinary woman who rose to a profound challenge when her middle son Terry was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma in March, 1977, and had his right leg amputated above the knee. He was 18. He was barely out of treatment - 16 months of chemotherapy and rehabilitation - when he revealed his goal of running across the country on his one good leg and a prosthesis to raise money for cancer research. Initially she was against the plan, but came around when she saw the intensity of his commitment.

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Endorsing his dream meant suppressing her maternal instincts to keep him safe at home under her protective eye. In retrospect, she believed that her son's life had a higher purpose, that contracting cancer was a pre-ordained affliction so that he could inspire others to support his cause: cancer research. "I strongly believe that we all have a guardian angel, and for me Terry is certainly it," she told a journalist in 2000.

Back in the 1970s, cancer was shrouded in fear and ignorance. Many couldn't even say the word, referring to the disease as the Big C - as though even to pronounce it aloud might incur bad luck. Terry died knowing that he had raised more than $24-million for cancer research, one dollar for every person living in Canada at the time.

In the 30 years since, Betty Fox ferociously protected her son's memory, fought off the commercialization of his name and championed the Marathon of Hope to keep his legacy alive and to pursue his goal of finding a cure for cancer. Along with hockey legend Bobby Orr, singer Anne Murray, race-car driver Jacques Villeneuve, figure skater Barbara Ann Scott, Senator Roméo Dallaire, astronaut Julie Payette and actor Donald Sutherland, she donned a white suit to represent her son's place in the hearts of Canadians and helped carry in the Canadian flag at the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics in February, 2010. Two weeks later, she and her husband walked across B.C. Place Stadium in Vancouver carrying the Paralympic torch to ignite the flame that officially opened those games.

"Carrying the flame in meant so much to both of us because we were carrying it for Terry, not for us or our family, but for our son," she said. "I have to say that I know Terry's watching and he would be so proud of all these athletes for the Paralympics."

Stubborn, blunt of speech, hot tempered when riled, Ms. Fox was "very bright, very direct and shrewd and she passed these qualities along to her son," says Toronto lawyer Herb Solway, a former adviser to the Fox family. Her compass was always set on her personal true north: What would Terry have wanted?

Over the years, and with help and support from Issy Sharp of the Four Season hotel chain, she's kept the run pure: non-competitive, open to all, no product endorsements and managed by a family-centred grassroots organization that eschews fancy offices and big salaries.

With her short stature, helmet of grey hair and direct gaze, she was already a recognizable figure when Terry had to give up the race on Sept. 1, 1980, just east of Thunder Bay, Ont. He had accumulated 5,373 kilometres and was more than halfway across the country when he collapsed because the cancer that had cost him his right leg had metastasized to both lungs. He could no longer get up at dawn to strap on his prosthesis for another gruelling day of his awkward but endearing two hops, a skip and a sort of a jump. "The day before I had run 26 miles and now I couldn't even walk across the road," he said of his run.

His marathon was over, but for millions of others it was just beginning. As then prime minister Pierre Trudeau said in the House of Commons: "It occurs very rarely in the life of a nation that the courageous spirit of one person unites all people in the celebration of his life and in the mourning of his death.... We do not think of him as one who was defeated by misfortune, but as one who inspired us with the example of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity."

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