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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."

The first national run was held on Sept. 13, 1981, less than three months after Terry Fox died. The following year, Ms. Fox quit her job to became the public face and family spokeswoman for the Marathon of Hope. There are days," she told a journalist as the 20th anniversary of the marathon approached, "when I have said to hell with it - let somebody else do it, this is too hard on me."

But aside from grumbling, she could never give up the cold calls, visits to hospices and corporations, and meetings with run organizers. "I believe in what Terry started. If I didn't believe that research was working, no way would I be here so many years later."

Last September, on the eve of the 29th annual run, she seemed more confident that the run would endure. She told The Globe that she always fretted that each run might be the last one, but "sitting back and looking at the people who believe, the stories you hear from people who are living many years after being diagnosed with cancer, I believe it will be around for a number of years."

Worries about the amount of money that was going into administration led to a parting of the ways with the Canadian Cancer Society and the launch of the Terry Fox Run as an independent charitable foundation on May 26, 1988. Over the years, more than $550-million has been raised in the annual September runs, which now occur around the world.

Beginnings

Elizabeth (Betty) Fox grew up in Melita, a farming community 320 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg. As a girl, she was a tomboy who loved to play ball with her brothers and was a maternal figure to her youngest sister, Norma.

High school didn't interest her as much and she quit before graduating to train as a hairdresser in Winnipeg. That's where she met Rolland (Rolly) Fox, a switchman for the Canadian National Railway. They married in 1956. Their first son, Fred, was born a year later. He was named after her elder brother, who had lost both legs when he was in a plane crash in whiteout conditions in the northern part of the province. Their second son, Terry, was born on July 28, 1958, followed by their third son, Darrell, in 1961. Their only daughter, Judy, was born in 1964.

Rolly Fox disliked the bitter Winnipeg winters so much that he asked for a transfer to Vancouver in 1966, even though the price was heavy: the loss of 12 years' seniority at work. The family settled in Surrey and moved two years later to Port Coquitlam. Betty was a stay-at-home mother while her children were small and then she began working in a stationery shop.

The family work ethic and code of behaviour were instilled early: the children were expected to stay out of trouble, to use honorifics when addressing adults, to find jobs in the summers and to save money to pay for extras such as sports equipment. Paper routes were discouraged because she thought it was wrong to make her children work before going to school.

The Foxes were like many other working families until Terry was diagnosed with cancer when he was an undergraduate at Simon Fraser University and an avid athlete. The night before the surgery, Terry's basketball coach dropped by the hospital with an issue of Runner's World containing an article about Dick Traum, an above the knee amputee who had run in the New York Marathon.

As Terry later told journalist Leslie Scrivener for her book Terry Fox: His Story, he'd been "lying in bed looking at this magazine, thinking if he can do it, I can do it too. ... I don't know why I dreamed what I did. It's because I'm competitive. I'm a dreamer. I like challenges. I don't give up... When I decided to do it, I knew I was going to go all out. There was no in-between."

He dipped his prosthesis into the Atlantic Ocean in the St. John's harbour in Newfoundland on April 12, 1980, and began his run, hoping to raise a million dollars. His school friend Doug Alward was with him, driving the van, supplied by Ford, with "Marathon of Hope Cross Country Run in Aid of Cancer Research" printed on the side. His parents charted their progress in media accounts and a weekly collect phone call from the road.

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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