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Doctors Tell Us How Terry Fox Is Still Influencing Cancer Research

We spoke to doctors affiliated with the Terry Fox Research Institute about the Canadian hero's legacy.
Photo by Bill Becker/The Canadian Press

Dr. Ralph DaCosta was in high school when Terry Fox ran his cross-country Marathon of Hope. A self-proclaimed "typical nerd" at the time, he personally saw Fox running on a roadway, and still has vivid memories from a scene that would stay with him for decades.

"I saw this Canadian with one leg hopping along these highways with a couple of old-fashioned police cars, literally with those little red lights on top," DaCosta, a principal investigator at the Ontario Cancer Institute of the University Health Network (UHN), told VICE Sports. "And now, decades later, I'm actually receiving funding that was a derivative of investments the Terry Fox Foundation made with the money he raised. I mean, it's freaking amazing."


When Fox dipped his right leg into the Atlantic Ocean in Newfoundland on April 12, 1980, he set off on not only his Marathon of Hope but also a chain of interest in cancer research cascading around the world, the impact of which is still felt acutely today.

Dr. DaCosta is just one of many dedicated scientists who were touched by Fox's run in one way or another, their careers and the groundbreaking research they do a tangible manifestation of his lasting impact to this day.

VICE Sports recently spoke to six doctors affiliated with the Terry Fox Research Institute, which according to a spokesperson has provided over $250 million in funding to Canadian researchers over the past decade. Spread out across the country from Vancouver to Ottawa, these researchers felt the impact of Fox's run in different ways and work in various areas of cancer research. They are unfailingly united, however, in their dedication to continuing his legacy.

Many are recipients of the Terry Fox Research Institute's New Investigators Award, which provides $450,000 in funding to early stage scientists working on innovative, often outside-the-box research ideas. Much of the research enabled by the funding is not well known amongst the public, but to call it groundbreaking and potentially life-saving is not hyperbolic.

Dr. DaCosta is exploring treatment of pancreatic cancer, one the deadliest forms of the disease, with anti-hypoxic drugs in conjunction with a less toxic, lower dose of traditional radiation. Dr. Martin Hirst, head of epigenomics at the BC Cancer Agency in British Columbia, is studying how Vitamin C may be capable of turning up a pathway that is turned down in cases of acute myeloid leukemia (AML).


Dr. William Lockwood, also of the BC Cancer Agency, is hoping to increase early screening and treatment of lung cancer by bringing clarity to whether radiation in low-dose CT scans carries harmful effects. And Dr. Guy Ungerecht, working under the mentorship of world-renowned researcher Dr. John Bell (featured in VICE's Killing Cancer documentary) at the Ottawa Hospital, is looking at a way to stimulate a patient's own immune system to attack tumours while leaving healthy tissues unharmed.

For Dr. Hirst, who was in elementary school when his class followed Terry's run with a big map, he would come to further understand the Canadian hero's legacy as it was carried on through the Fox family.

"If it wasn't for Darrell [Terry's brother] and his entire family, the research that's been initiated and funded by the Terry Fox efforts just never would have come to be," he told VICE Sports.

"[They] have really continued and built upon the legacy Terry initiated. But Terry, to me personally, is an inspiration. I don't know how else to describe it."

Dr. Bell (left) with Dr. Underecht. Photo courtesy The Ottawa Hospital

Some younger investigators, such as Dr. Lockwood, were not yet born during Fox's triumphant journey, but he participated, like so many Canadians today, in the Terry Fox Run at school.

"I remember running it in kindergarten, and now, being able to take advantage of the funds they have acquired through the run over all those years and use it toward my own research, that's pretty cool," Dr. Lockwood, whose kids now participate in the run, told VICE Sports. "It's all put the importance on the map, and for me, myself, it was one of the reasons that I got into this field."


Dr. Underecht, a German native now working with Dr. Bell at his lab, grew up in a different country but emphatically referred to the Terry Fox Run as "iconic."

Others would remember a momentary encounter that was the precursor to a lifelong involvement with continuing Fox's legacy. When Dr. Victor Ling went to see Fox run up University Avenue as a young scientist in Toronto, he didn't know he himself would later become the founding president of the Terry Fox Research Institute.

Terry during his Marathon of Hope run. Photo by The Canadian Press

"We believe in those values, we need to work together in order to really try and beat this thing and help others," Dr. Ling, who wears a Terry Fox T-shirt as his pajamas as a reminder of who he is and what he's done, told VICE Sports. "That is the impact that he had on myself."

And for some, the significance of Fox's run didn't hit them until years later. Dr. DaCosta had to pause as the intensity of Fox's impact and bravery hit him mid-sentence.

"At the time, you're a young whippersnapper; you don't get the complete picture [until] decades later. I could have been that guy," he told VICE Sports, voice quivering. "We were almost the same age, yet he had the courage to do that while I was just a nerd in high school somewhere."

Dr. DaCosta at work. Photo courtesy University Health Network

Decades later, Dr. DaCosta is carrying out Fox's vision. Despite the efforts of the Research Institute, however, the same lack of awareness and funding for cancer research that motivated Fox to run in the first place back in 1980 still exists today.


"Funding is Canada for scientists is at an all-time low," said Dr. DaCosta. "We're all part of the solution—it's not some guy on University Avenue who's up in his lab writing grants. It's all of us."

"One of the things Terry Fox said is if we all do our bit, it can make a difference even if you're not a scientist," added Dr. Bell.

Terry's sister Judith Fox (red jacket, centre) and Dr. Ling, next to her on the right, at Stanley Park in Vancouver.

As we approach what would have been Terry's 59th birthday at the end of July, the Terry Fox Foundation has raised $715-plus million for cancer research worldwide. But for a disease that affects one in two Canadians directly and even more indirectly through their loved ones, it's a daunting task that requires a collective will to chip away at. Thirty-eight years later, the words in the letter Fox wrote to the Canadian Cancer Society before embarking on his run still ring true.

"We need your help. The people in cancer clinics all over the world need people who believe in miracles," he said. "I am not a dreamer, and I am not saying that this will initiate any kind of definitive answer or cure to cancer. I believe in miracles. I have to."