Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope engaged all Canadians, cancer research must do the same

Dr. Nadine Caron, the first Canadian female general surgeon of First Nations descent, discusses how the MOHCCN is seeking to make cancer research more representative.

By Dr. Nadine Caron*

Originally published in the Globe and Mail on Sept. 16th, 2023.

Most Canadians of my generation have fond memories of the summer of 1980.

That spring we had learned of a young cancer survivor running across Canada to raise awareness and funds for cancer research. His goal seemed impossible: not only because of the immensity of the country he was traversing, but because he was doing so by running a marathon a day on a prosthetic leg. But as the months passed, the young man showed no signs of relenting, and his grit, determination and altruism began to capture the imagination of Canadians from coast to coast to coast.

Like many kids around the country, I was not immune to this mixture of wonder and inspiration. At our home in Kamloops, BC, my friends and I tracked Terry Fox’s journey across Atlantic Canada and into Quebec and Ontario. With every day that passed, our admiration for him grew. That’s why, when Terry asked every Canadian to be a part of his Marathon of Hope, we scrambled to find ways to help, raising money and asking our parents to let us skip school to greet him whenever he reached Kamloops.

We imagined what it would be like to see him – to run beside him, to cheer him on. But we never had the chance. On Sept. 1, 1980, days before the start of the school year, the nation learned that Terry’s cancer had returned and that the Marathon of Hope would be put on hold.

That day, as my friends and I faced the end of that magical summer, we were comforted by the feeling that something had changed inside of us. Terry’s vision had united the country, showing us that we all have a role to play to make the world a better place.

In the 43 years that have passed since his Marathon of Hope, Canadians from all walks of life have rallied behind Terry’s vision, raising millions of dollars for cancer research. This funding has helped change how we detect, diagnose and treat cancer, helping to improve survival and quality of life for patients.

But as a surgeon in a predominantly Indigenous area in Northern British Columbia whose work focuses primarily on oncology, one thing remains clear to me: while these advances are great, we still have a lot of work to do to make sure that this research – and the outcomes derived from it – applies to all Canadians.

That is not happening in Canada today. Indigenous peoples, for example, show rapidly increasing incidence of cancer, and experience poorer, cancer-related outcomes than non-Indigenous Canadians. Similarly, mortality from breast, colorectal, prostate and pancreatic cancers is higher in Black patients than in white patients

There are many reasons behind these alarming disparities and moving past them will require a multi-pronged approach, but part of solution is simple, we need increased – and equitable – access to cancer research and the resources that make it possible.

The Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres Network (MOHCCN) is taking a step in that direction. Led by the Terry Fox Research Institute and the Terry Fox Foundation, with support from the Government of Canada, and other funding and research partners, the Network is working with partners across the country to create Canada’s most complete cancer case resource, made up of clinical and genomic data from 15,000 patients from diverse ethnic backgrounds treated in centres across the country. This resource will allow researchers to use new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, to determine why certain patients respond to certain treatments, so we can eventually match every new cancer patient to the best treatment possible based on their personal genomic and clinical realities.

The success of this resource will depend on whether its data is truly representative of the Canadian population.  As one of the leads of the Network’s Canadian Spectrum Working Group, I’m working with colleagues across the country to build a strategy that will allow us to make this happen. For this, we will need to collaborate with numerous stakeholder groups to collect data in ways that respect traditions and cultural sensitivities. Modeling our work on successful experiences such as the Northern Biobank Initiative and the Indigenous-governed Northern BC First Nations Biobank (a proposed initiative which plans to include data from First Nations cancer patients in Northern BC) we hope to show how consultation and community participation can help build trust and equity.

Forty-three years ago, when Terry said he wanted all Canadians to be a part of his Marathon of Hope, he really meant all Canadians – new Canadians, rural Canadians, urban Canadians, Indigenous peoples and other minority and racialized groups. If we want to create cancer solutions that are applicable to all these groups, we need cancer research to include them. This weekend, as we all get ready to hit the trails and run in his name to raise funds for cancer research, we can rest assured knowing that the Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres Network is working to ensure that our research is an accurate reflection of the rich diversity and depth that comprises Canada.


*Dr. Nadine Caron is the first Canadian female general surgeon of First Nations descent, as well as the first female First Nations student to graduate from University of British Columbia’s medical school. She also co-leads the Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres Network’s Canadian Spectrum Working Group with Dr. Gina Ogilvie.

"As one of the leads of the Network’s Canadian Spectrum Working Group, I’m working with colleagues across the country to build a strategy that will allow us to make this happen"