A humble hero making a huge difference

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Yusuf Hirji, an 18-year old from Pickering, has survived more obstacles than most of us are given in a lifetime. And he’s done it all with a smile on his face.

Yusuf was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a bone cancer, in 2012. If some of you are wondering why osteosarcoma sounds so familiar, it’s because it is the same kind of cancer that affected another Canadian hero, Terry Fox.

While Terry took to the road to raise money for cancer research and awareness, Yusuf has taken to the stage as a youth ambassador for the Terry Fox Foundation, a role that allows him to speak to students across many schools and share his experience, insight and hope for the future of cancer research.

“I don’t know what necessarily inspired me to do this, it just kind of happened,” said Yusuf. “I mean, once I started doing it, I wanted to keep on doing it, and I love public speaking, so it was important to me.”

He began speaking shortly after he was diagnosed, travelling to local schools to talk about the Terry Fox Foundation and his personal experience.

Yusuf with his hydration backpack during chemotherapy.
Yusuf Hirji with his hydration backpack during chemotherapy.

It was in October of the same year that he had a painstakingly long 16-hour surgery on his leg. After that, he went through chemotherapy and was actually the first pediatric patient to receive aggressive chemotherapy as an outpatient in Canada. In other, non-medical words, he was able to go home and have the hydration needed to flush out the chemotherapy provided in a backpack. Yusuf was able to recover in the comfort of his own home and have his family and friends by his side. Today, Yusuf only needs a cane to help him get around and is proudly cancer free.

Yusuf explained that he finds public speaking “addicting” in a sense—the connection he makes with the audience and witnessing the realization that kids come to when they see that their fundraising and hard work contributes to actual people and makes an actual difference.

“Every time I do a speech, I want to change someone’s perspective on life,” Yusuf expressed.

It is easy to see that Yusuf has taken the cards that life has dealt him and used them so positively and so passionately.

Now 18, Yusuf is in Grade 12 and isn’t succumbing to the pressures that many kids his age are feeling now. With post-secondary decisions right around the corner, Yusuf has a simple answer for the question what’s next after high school?

“I have no idea what I want to do,” he said, explaining that a career in public speaking is definitely an option, but for right now but he hopes to take a year off and test out the public speaking waters some more, see if it is really something he’d enjoy doing. “Nothing is set in stone, and that’s the way I like it.”

Martha McClew, the Provincial Director for Ontario for the Terry Fox Foundation, gladly took the time to explain the importance of having Yusuf as an ambassador for the foundation. “He’s a great role model, he’s a teenager, he’s got cool hair and he’s got his tattoos, and in the eyes of kids, he looks normal,” she said, adding, “That is such an important message that we are trying to get across: that just because these kids have cancer, it doesn’t make them any different.”

Among other things, Yusuf was a competitive soccer player prior to his diagnosis and has since had to adapt his dream of playing soccer overseas. He spoke at the head office of Adidas over the summer and shared with them his story as an athlete and what his cancer has changed for him. Martha was in the audience during that talk and was really moved by his speech.

“Literally the room was absolutely mesmerized [by] his story as an athlete and how he had to completely give up that dream but was still so positive about it,” she said.

Yusuf has not an ounce of regret about having to give up soccer. Instead, he has chosen to redirect his energy and passion into something that feeds his soul just as soccer used to.

“Now I’m not playing any soccer; I’m coaching a bit here and there, but I’m trying to find other things that interest me and that I can be as passionate about,” he said.

When asked if he has any plans to follow the same or a similar path that Terry Fox took, Yusuf said that he has been thinking about it.

“I’m still walking with a cane, so it’s nothing I can do now, but I know if I started running again, because I love to run, I wouldn’t stop.”

Yusuf has accomplished and survived so many things, it’s safe to say that he won’t be slowing down anytime soon.