Supporting the Dream

By Kevin McKay

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It was anything but a happy occasion that day in March 1977 when Doctor Piper invited Betty Fox and her family to a room down the hall to speak to them privately. Gathered there along with Betty was her husband Rolly, her four children, a friend of Terry's named Doug Alward, the doctor and a nurse. Betty wipes a tear from the corner of her eye as she recalls, "The doctor said to Terry, 'I have bad news. I wish I could tell you that you have suffered a sports injury, but what you have is a malignant tumour called an osteogenic sarcoma. You will have some treatment, but before that treatment can start we're going to have to amputate your leg because that is what is going to save your life.'”

"Terry cried quite hard. Then, just like that, he straightened up and he said, 'I've always tried hard. But I'll have to try harder than I ever have before because I'm not ready to leave this world.' And with that he never looked back."

Terry Fox was four months shy of his nineteenth birthday.

For his mother, the news was devastating. She remembers of that time, "It was pretty tough to deal with. You didn't get upset and feel sorry for Terry. He wouldn't allow it. And when he was with us, we were supposed to act like nothing had happened. But when you were by yourself was when you had to feel it had just ripped your heart out. It wasn't easy."

Nothing could have prepared Betty for this, certainly not her upbringing in rural Manitoba. Betty was born in 1937, the third and middle child of five.

"I was a true middle child,” she says. “I fell into that category very well." Though they lived in a farming community, they were not farmers. Her father worked for the Manitoba Highways Department while her stay-at-home mother was well known in town for the bread, cinnamon buns and pies she made.

"She was a great mother."

Betty had no real career aspirations, though she did find some part-time work at a bakery before moving to Brandon and working for a short time in a mental hospital. From there, it was off to Winnipeg and hairdressing school. It was while there that she met a young man working for CN Rail named Rolly. After a whirlwind romance, the two wed in October 1956.

The next year, their first son Fred came along. "In those days, we didn't have a car so we called a cab but it didn't come,” Betty recalls. “In the end, I had to walk five blocks to the hospital and I wasn't there long before Fred was born." Terry followed the next year, and Darrell and Judith completed the family a few years later.

Rolly had long wanted to move to British Columbia and, in fact, had been contemplating it at the time he met Betty. She was not so keen on the West Coast, preferring Atlantic Canada. "I loved the East Coast better,” she says. “I felt the mountains here had far too many trees on them."

Years later, in 1966, Betty agreed to let Rolly ask for his transfer to B.C. When CN said no, Rolly told them he would go to work for BC Rail instead, so rather than risk losing him they approved his transfer. He left nearly at once, driving to the coast while Betty looked after their four children and packed up the household goods. The railroad gave them a ride out west while their possessions were loaded on a boxcar.

After a two year stay in Surrey, the Fox family bought their first British Columbia home in Port Coquitlam in October 1968. Once the children were all established in school and their various activities, Betty took a part-time job working as a manager of a greeting card and gift store in Westwood Mall. All of the Fox children were active in sports, competing for their various school teams, as well as joining other teams. Judith played softball and ringette. Darrell played soccer. Terry played baseball and rugby, while Fred was into softball and soccer.

"Our children had a good life in Port Coquitlam,” says Betty. “All of them played sports and they all graduated from Port Coquitlam Senior Secondary."

Betty remembers, "Darrell was good in school. We say Terry was good at school because he had a good memory, but he was not the best. Rolly was busy with work, so I pretty much raised the kids. I look back at some of the things Terry did that he got scolded for, and I can see they helped make him into the young man he became. He always worked hard. He wanted to be No. 1, which wasn't a good thing. But it wasn't bad, either, if you do it the right way. And he loved sports."

When he entered Mary Hill Junior High, Terry joined the basketball team, though his coach advised him to take up track or something else. But Terry was determined.

"He practised and practised,” says Betty. “In the beginning, he wasn't any good. He was the last player. I used to get upset at him because he would get up early in the morning, take his lunch, and get to school so he could get into the gymnasium, as soon as it opened, so he could practise." All that practise paid off. By the time Terry graduated from high school, he and his friend Doug Alward shared the Athlete of the Year Award.

From there, Terry moved up to Simon Fraser University where he made the Junior Varsity basketball team. Betty recalls the coach telling them Terry made the team not because he was the calibre of player that they wanted, but because he worked so hard, always giving 100 per cent. There was no way he would cut him because every team should have a gutsy player like Terry.

Then came the sore knee and the tragic news that followed.

His rehabilitation at home, learning how to walk again with his prosthetic leg, was hard.

"It was difficult to be there for him, to do things for him,” says Betty. “I'm sure there are many patients out there today, when they read this, will agree that they know just what I am talking about. Because when someone is very ill, they always take it out on the person they love. And though he also asked things of his father and siblings, it was his mother he always wanted to do things for him."

Terry read about cancer in an attempt to better understand it. One discovery was that not enough money, in his opinion, was being spent on cancer research in Canada.

"He was extremely upset about this,” recalls Betty. “Terry never forgot the people he left behind in the cancer ward - the ones who didn't make it."

In February 1979, Terry started 14 months of intense training, only taking one or two days off during that entire time, when he was too ill to go out.

"We would ask him not to go, especially when it was cold or icy or wet, but he said he had to go because he was going to run the Vancouver Marathon the next May,” says Betty. “That was his story and that was what we believed."

In September of that year, during the Labour Day weekend, Terry went to Prince George with Doug to compete in a 27-kilometre run. He came in last place, but he did finish.

"When they came back I was waiting for them,” Betty recalls, “watching out the window. There was nothing on television and nothing on the radio about this amputee running in the race. I was so angry at them that I called a couple of the radio stations and told them off. The car drove up and I went out and asked him how he made out.

"He said, 'Mom, it was the biggest day of my life. I wish you had been there.' Well, I wasn't and that is a sorrow that will never leave me. That we weren't there for him.”

It was the next day that Terry came clean with his mother about his true intentions; to run across Canada to raise money for cancer research.

"I was absolutely angry. ‘How stupid can you be?’” Betty thought. “You're a smart guy. This is not a smart thing. Can't you just run across British Columbia?”

Terry’s response was that not only people in B.C. get cancer.

Betty had the chore of breaking the news to her husband.

“A week later, I went to Rolly and told him to just sit there and listen to me. I told him, and his only question was, 'When?' We both knew that there was no way we could stop him. Nothing would have worked. He was so determined."

What would soon be known as The Marathon of Hope started out in St. John's, Newfoundland on April 12, 1980, thanks to the generosity of several sponsors, including Ford Canada, who provided the van Terry and Doug, would live in. The pair travelled alone until Betty and Rolly met them outside Dartmouth, Nova Scotia in Preston. All four of them had dinner in a woman's house, where they talked about some of the hardships the two young men were facing.

"A week before, Terry had called me sobbing because he and Doug were having some disagreements,” says Betty. “I asked him to hold on for a week until we got there. We discussed what they were doing in such a tiny space, all day every day. It was a huge commitment. I couldn't have done it. I told them it was like being married and they both came to terms. It all worked out for a while.”

Darrell joined Terry and Doug in Saint John, New Brunswick, but Betty didn’t see Terry again until she and the family surprised him in Whitby, Ontario. They lined up at an intersection and waited while he approached. When he got close, he saw them and did a double take.

"It was a magic moment,” Betty recalls, “but it was tough for me to be with him anyway. I couldn't watch him run. The traffic was horrendous. I have no idea how he kept on his feet and running while the trucks rumbled by."

Terry averaged a marathon a day for 143 days, only stopping on September 1 in Thunder Bay when the cancer returned, this time in his lungs. He wanted to get better so he could finish his run but was too sick and the treatments weren't working.

Terry passed away June 28, 1981, one month shy of his 23rd birthday.

While Terry was still fighting, Isadore Sharp, who wanted to continue Terry’s fundraising efforts, approached him and suggested a Terry Fox Run. Terry liked the idea and agreed.

Betty left her job at the card and gift shop to meet with a couple of Toronto businessmen to help plan these annual events. The first run was held in 1981, and they are still going strong today. Before he died, Terry raised nearly 25 million dollars for cancer research. Today, more than 550 million dollars has been raised in his name, and his parents and family have stayed heavily involved.

"I always operate by thinking about Terry, first, before making a decision and that is important,” says Betty. “It has to stick and stay that way. Terry is the guiding light we follow. People like the honesty and integrity of Terry, and of the Foundation in his name. We have strict guidelines. Our fundraising costs are virtually nil due to our volunteers and the support from each community."

Recently, Terry was voted the second greatest Canadian of all time. Betty was proud of the honour, but says that's not what he was about. It was cancer research, never for him. He was a young man who raised more than 20 million dollars that year and yet he didn't have two nickels to rub together to buy Christmas presents, she says.

"We were an average family. When Terry died, in a way it took over, but not for the glory. We wanted to help his dream mature and become reality. People wanted speakers, schools asked us to come, and we did because that was our way of saying thank you to the wonderful public. We never asked for it. We didn't want anything for ourselves. We just wanted to be there for him while he was with us and to help support his dream. We certainly weren't there for any ego trip.”

"I truly believe it was all meant to be, the cancer, the marathon, everything. I truly do. But you know, I still miss him terribly. No parent should ever outlive any of their children."


The Terry Fox Run takes place on September 13. For information on local events, visit



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