On April 12, 1980, a then little-known Canadian dipped his artificial leg into the Atlantic Ocean and began on a trek across the country, hoping to raise money for cancer research.
He hoped to raise one dollar from each of Canada’s 24 million people. Running the equivalent to a full marathon every day, Terry Fox’s journey started with little fanfare. But by the time Fox had to halt his run, in Ontario, he had become nationally famous.
Nine months later, Fox would die of lung cancer.
Anne Neely remembers where she was those days.
Then a manager of the Prince Albert branch of the Canadian Cancer Society, Neely was a cancer survivor herself.
“I took great interest in his run,” she said.
After Fox’s death in 1981, people across the country, including in Prince Albert, were saddened.
“A lot of people in Prince Albert wondered what they could do to raise money for cancer research,” Neely recalled.
That September, 760 communities held a run in Fox’s honour to raise money for cancer research. Prince Albert was one of them.
“The board of directors from Prince Albert and all the local media got together and organized the run,” Neely said.
The first one was held at Little Red River Park.
“The media was terrific in promoting the event, however, I had no idea how many runners to expect or prepare for.”
Neely said the weather cooperated, and she headed out in the morning to set up tables and chairs for registration.
“The runners were right behind us,” Neely said.
“There were carloads, truckloads, a busload, young children, youth, adults on bicycles, running and walking. One person was even on horseback. We were overwhelmed with the crowd.”
Neely was able to corral 17 more volunteers to help her out.
“I talked to some of the runners and wondered what made them come out,” Neely said.
“People were from various parts around Prince Albert — one person was from North Battleford — but their interest was all the same. We came to raise more money for cancer research.”
That first run in Prince Albert attracted 650 people and raised about $16,000, as well as starting a tradition in the city that continues to this day.
“I hope that Terry Fox legacy will encourage the people of Prince Albert to come out for the 39th Terry Fox run and raise more money for cancer research,” she said.
“I’m a 47-year cancer survivor and my heart is still there with cancer research. I have a sister right now battling cancer. It seems there is still a great need for cancer research money.”
While that event Neely helped launch almost four decades ago is still being held today, it almost didn’t make it.
About five or six years ago, the event struggled to attract even ten participants.
But over the past few years, it’s begun to make a comeback, attracting a few dozen last year despite wind, rain and cold.
Recent events have raised close to $12,000, one of the highest totals the local run has ever seen.
While people like Neely have long retired from organizing the event, a new generation is hoping to inspire more young people to take up the cause.
Danielle Poisson lost her dad to cancer. She joined the local Terry Fox Run committee that year the event only attracted a handful of people.
Now, she’s the event’s newest coordinator.
“It’s coming back,” Poisson said of the Terry Fox Run.
“It’s gaining that momentum again. I think we’re in that place where the older generation needs to share their stories to the younger generations, inspire them and keep it going.”
Poisson met with Neely this week. The women sat opposite, Possoin wearing this year’s Terry Fox Run T-shirt, Neely sporting a pin from that first year. The original shirt — which Neely had signed by Fred Fox two years ago — was folded carefully by her side.
“Hearing your story is inspiring me to keep this going,” Poisson said to Neely.
“We need to capture the younger generation’s hearts.”
While raising funds for cancer research is important, and the main purpose of the Terry Fox Run, for Poisson, the event is so much more.
“It’s also about bringing people together,” she said. “We can all heal together.”
Poisson said being a part of this process, and hearing everybody else’s stories, has been beneficial for her.
“It’s very hard to have somebody (in your life) have cancer. To hear each other’s stories and to heal together is really important. Being part of this community … helped me heal from my father’s death because I’m surrounded by people that understand.”
Poisson feels that it is now her responsibility to inspire the next generation of volunteers, the same way Neely’s generation inspired her. It’s also important, she said, to keep sharing Terry Fox’s story, helping others to understand the courage it took to try to run across Canada on an artificial leg in 1980.
She’s excited for this year’s Terry Fox Run, set to be held on September 13 at the Alfred Jenkins Field House. The event will have door prizes and feature tacos from a local food truck.
Nationally, the Terry Fox Foundation, which only took over the run in 1988, has directed $21.8 million to cancer research programs in 2017-18. Their $0.21 fundraising cost ratio is among the best in the not-for-profit sector, and the research focus includes lung, brain, pediatric and more. The foundation has funded 1,314 cancer research projects to date, including projects that have helped reclassify brain tumours, helped detect cancer sooner, improved outcomes and worked to identify new treatment options.
Locally, Poisson is hoping to contribute to that work while also building greater awareness about Terry Fox’s story and what the Terry Fox Foundation does.
“Come out and share your stories,” she said.
“I want to hear your story if you’re running for someone who has been affected by cancer. But also, share the moment we’re here together. We’re here as a whole to raise money for cancer research and continue the legacy.”