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Terry Fox is shown during his run across Canada to raise money for cancer research in an undated photo.

/The Canadian Press

The first story, of a remarkable young man and his audacious goal, was plainly stated.

On a Monday in mid-April, 1980, The Globe and Mail ran a Canadian Press dispatch from Newfoundland: “A man who lost his leg to cancer three years ago says he hopes to run about 50 kilometres a day on his way across Canada. He began in St. John’s on Saturday.”

Twenty weeks and 5,373 kilometres later – inspiring a nation then and forever after – Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope came to an end near Thunder Bay. He was more than halfway home. But cancer had spread. He died the following June, one month before his 23rd birthday.

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It was 40 years ago when Mr. Fox was forced to stop. He was supposed to have been getting regular checkups but the headstrong young man ducked his doctor appointments during his run. “I know my own body,” he said that August. Those close to him later reflected that Mr. Fox knew he was in trouble and pushed as far as he could.

On Sept. 1, 1980, Mr. Fox was coughing and choking and seized by pain in his neck and chest. He had been running daily marathons of 42 kms on a prosthetic leg designed only for walking, when doctors found two tumours in his lungs, one the size of a lemon, and the other a golf ball. The last day, Mr. Fox ran 29 kms, stopped to rest, and then pushed through five more.

“All I can say is that if there’s any way I can get out there again and finish it, I will,” he said the next day, speaking to reporters while on a stretcher, his parents by his side.

Mr. Fox has long been admired as one of Canada’s great heroes. In the face of adversity, under the spectre of death, his determination, resilience and strength have inspired people for decades. As Canadians reflect back on Mr. Fox’s run and legacy, it can serve this year as an inspiration for all, during a difficult coronavirus pandemic that has thrown so many out of work, collectively cost the country so much, and killed 9,135 people as of Wednesday.

It is important to remember that, while Mr. Fox has been venerated, he was not perfect. Grinding out long and exhausting hours on the road, he could be easily irritated and ill-tempered with his core support team of two: his brother and his best friend.

Mr. Fox was not superhuman. He just believed in something bigger than himself. Defeating this pandemic likewise demands the same. Public-health officials cannot win this battle for us. It is every Canadian who must contribute, from wearing a mask on transit to abiding by essential rules of physical distancing, and washing one’s hands often.

Mr. Fox’s first goal was to raise $1-million for cancer research. As the run proceeded, he upped it to $24-million, a dollar for every Canadian. Days after his run ended, donations topped $10-million; they hit $24-million before he died. As of this year, the Terry Fox Foundation, with its annual September run – virtual this pandemic year – has raised more than $800-million.

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The research it helped fund has paid off. Children with leukemia a half-century ago were almost certain to die. Today, they are very likely to live. The five-year survival rate for cancers in the early 1990s was 55 per cent. By the 2010s it had climbed to 63 per cent.

Cancer, however, is still a killer, especially as Canada’s population ages. This year, 225,800 new cases are predicted, and 83,300 deaths. Lung cancer remains the most common killer. And cancer in sum remains by far Canada’s leading cause of death. People older than 50 are most at risk, and death is most likely in people older than 80. Of the approximately 280,000 people who die in Canada each year, more than one-quarter are killed by cancer.

When Mr. Fox died, a nation mourned. The flag on the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill and at federal buildings across the country were flown at half-mast. A statue of Mr. Fox in stride has stood directly across from Parliament since 1998, moved from a lesser location. It was rededicated on Canada Day. “This is my favourite statue of Terry,” said his mother Betty Fox at the ceremony. “It’s the closest likeness there is of him.”

Mr. Fox choked back tears when his long run ended. He knew it was unlikely he would ever finish. He had run for others. “I hope,” he said the day after, “that what I’ve done has been an inspiration and I hope I will see it now, that people will take off and continue where I left off here.”

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