Sunday, April 12, 2015

Terry Fox, the Secular Flagellant

Every Canadian knows the story of Terry Fox, the young British-Columbian who, after losing his right leg to bone cancer, determined that he would ran all the across the country on an artificial leg, to raise funds to fight the disease.

Terrance Stanley Fox (1958-1981)

Fox commenced his Marathon of Hope on April 12, 1980, thirty-five years ago, at St. John’s, Newfoundland, intended to reach his home on the west coast before the end of the year. 

But just five months later, he was forced to abandon his mission at Thunder Bay, Ontario, as cancer had spread to his lungs; Fox succumbed to the disease, aged 22, in June 1981. 

Originally intending to raise $1 million for anti-cancer research, by the time Fox reached Toronto in July, his new goal was $25 million – one dollar for every Canadian alive at the time. 

In fact, well over half a billion dollars has now been raised to fight cancer since the Marathon of Hope; and survival rates for the osteo-sarcoma that claimed Fox’s leg, and his life, have increased dramatically. 

The pain that Fox endured while running each day on his artificial limb must have been incredible. 

It is a large part of the reason why Fox has been so widely admired by Canadians – hundreds of schools, buildings, bridges and other landmarks have been named for him. A bronze effigy of Fox is situated not far from Parliament Hill in Ottawa. 

Fox’s dedication was also incomprehensible to the vast majority people, who are so adverse to pain and discomfort. 

Terry Fox in fact revived a tradition that had been dormant in the Occident for many centuries: self-flagellation.  


Originating in the Middle Ages, Flagellants were a heretical sect that gained force especially following the “Black Death” or bubonic plague in the fourteenth century. 

Apparently, Flagellants were certain that sinful attention to the needs of the body was somehow responsible for the viral outbreak, which killed as much as one-third of the European population before it came to an end. 

They would go on pilgrimage during holy festivals, injuring their flesh with whips as they made their way to the shrines of key saints. 

It was an extreme manifestation of the traditional Christian embarrassment over – and renunciation of – the human body as the prison-house of the soul. 

But as the age of plagues gradually came to an end, so too did the Flagellantist movement – at least in the modern West. Flagellants are not uncommon elsewhere, as in the Philippines, or in traditional Catholic communities in Mediterranean Europe (it is also witnessed among some followers of Shia Islam).

Cancer symptoms were recorded going back to the earliest civilized times. The term itself derives from its physiological resemblance to a crab (which in Latin was cancer, karkinos in Classical Greek, hence the term “carcinoma”). This is the reason why it shares the name with an astrological sign represented by a crab. 

Illustration of cancer cells.

During the twentieth century, however, cancer seemed to become its own plague.   It was not nearly as lethal as the viral diseases that killed so many during the later Middle Ages. But striking people down, often in the prime of their lives, cancer became the second-leading cause of death in the U.S. (after heart disease). 

Cancer deaths are often caused by environmental and lifestyle factors – the main cause of carcinoma to the lungs is tobacco-smoking. 

Yet many forms of cancer strike those who do not smoke, or have not been exposed to harmful toxins in the environment. 

This was apparently the case with Terry Fox, who did not smoke or drink, and was a champion athlete before his cancer diagnosis. 

Genetic predisposition is often behind apparently healthy people being afflicted by cancer. But this was poorly understood during Fox’s lifetime, and so malignant cell-growth back then especially, seemed as unpredictable and frightening as did the contraction of bubonic plague and other diseases during medieval times. 

The twentieth-century cancer plague did not inspire a mass outbreak of self-flagellation, of course (though torturing one's body was also relatively uncommon even during the Middle Ages) 

I would suggest, however, that Terry Fox’s mission to run across Canada was carried out (no doubt unconsciously) on the premises of Flagellantism. 

Rather than punishing his body with a lash or whip, Fox did so using his artificial limb. It was the means by which he was able to run (or jog) in the first place. 

But arguably, too, he was lashing back at his body for betraying him: it not only took away Fox’s identity as a star athlete; he was forced, after the amputation of his leg, to re-learn how to move around in a basic fashion. 

Of all maladies, cancer seems the most evil: it not only overwhelms and destroys the cellular basis for human life – all life in fact. Its medical treatment, either through chemical or radiological means, causes its own misery

And, in Terry Fox’s case, as in many others, there is the maiming caused by the amputation of one or more limbs, or other parts of the body

So, in addition to Fox’s self-infliction of pain through running a daily marathon on an artificial limb, he followed the Flagellant’s path by going on a long-distance pilgrimage: all the way across Canada (or so he intended), with the goal of inducing others to give to the cause of eradicating a modern scourge: cancer.

None of this is intended to take anything away from Terry Fox’s effort, nor yet with what he achieved in raising so much money to find a cure for cancer. It does, I would suggest, give us a better understanding of his motivations, and of the cultural context in which he ran his Marathon of Hope.

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