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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 ...

When the two young men got on each other's nerves and started fighting, Terry phoned home in tears from Sheet Harbour, N.S., to say he needed help. His parents took a week's vacation and flew to Halifax, where they thrashed out the conflicts with the two young men. The Foxes knew that both boys could be stubborn, that their son could be demanding and that Mr. Alward was more likely to withdraw than stand up to his friend. "If you have to yell, yell," Ms. Fox told Mr. Alward, before reluctantly offering up another son to the road, Terry's younger brother Darrell, 17, who left grade 12 a month early so he could join the Marathon as an emotional safety valve now that school was out. Darrell, who has been national director of the Terry Fox Foundation since 1990, is still taking care of his older brother.

About this time the run got the attention of hotelier Issy Sharp. He and his wife Rosalie were no strangers to cancer. Their son Christopher had died, age 18, of melanoma on March 10, 1978, a year after Terry's diagnosis. Sharp offered food and accommodation wherever en route there was a hotel in the Four Seasons chain; when Terry was discouraged because so few people were making donations and lining the route as he made his way through Quebec, Mr. Sharp pledged two dollars for every mile he ran, persuaded close to a thousand other corporations to do the same, and sent one of his staff to Montreal to help the local Cancer Society drum up support.

The real difference came in Ontario and in Toronto, where Mr. Sharp organized a luncheon for 500, including the lieutenant-governor Pauline McGibbon, to hear Terry speak about his dream. From then on, the press and the public were one in lining the route. Mr. Sharp was also the person who came up with the idea of carrying on the Marathon of Hope as an annual fall run and discussed logistics and parameters with Terry before his death. He continues to sit on the board of the Terry Fox Foundation.

After their son's death, the Foxes visited many communities to open Terry Fox schools and playgrounds, and to unveil statues. While her husband was shy and spoke hesitantly from prepared texts, Betty was a natural as a public speaker and soon had a heavy schedule, travelling thousands of kilometres a year on behalf of the run and her son's legacy. On the 10th anniversary of Terry's run, she and her husband re-traced his route by car, visiting schools where he had spoken and homes where he had eaten meals and been given a bed.

The anniversaries never got easier, but she always agreed to interview requests. Invariably that meant reliving the day in September, 1979, when Terry - flush with accomplishment from finishing his first competitive run as an amputee - told her that his real goal was not to enter an occasional marathon in B.C., but to run across the country to raise money for cancer research. She yelled and screamed, and so apparently did he, as she tried to argue him out of doing something so dangerous and foolish. For Terry, the arduous physical demands of the road ahead were nothing compared to the suffering and fear he had witnessed in other patients on the cancer ward.

Memories of that confrontation and its resolution stayed with her.

"He said, 'I thought you'd be one of the first persons to believe in me," she told Maclean's in 2005, sitting in the living room of her mobile retirement home in Chilliwack, in the Fraser Valley. "And I wasn't. I was the first person who let him down."

Even if that were true, she more than made up for those early doubts. She believed in him and kept the faith alive for the rest of her own life.

Last year, on the eve of the 29th annual run, she retold that story to The Globe, but she was more forgiving of herself. "It didn't matter what we said to Terry. We knew he was going to [do it]and rather than argue and try to talk him out of it, we went along with him and just did our best to help him get things ready to go." And so she did.

Betty Fox died on June 17. She had been suffering from arthritis, diabetes and other illnesses. Unlike her son's death, in the glare of a public spotlight, her final days were closely guarded. After a media outlet published an inaccurate story that she was in a hospice dying of cancer, her family requested privacy, a wish that was largely respected. Funeral arrangements have not been disclosed yet.

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