Lifting Weights and Lifting Spirits: Meet Colton Boreen, 2022 Terry Fox Gold Medal Winner
By Alyssa Quan
“If there has been a running theme throughout my life, it has been defying expectations,” says Colton Boreen, a fourth year SFU student studying neuroscience.
An avid gym-goer, amateur bodybuilder and certified trainer, Boreen is also a childhood cancer survivor and the 2022 recipient of the Terry Fox Gold Medal Award.
At four years old, Boreen was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare and lethal bone cancer. With a grapefruit-sized tumor on his left hip bone, his rate of surviving more than five years was said to be 15 per cent. He was not expected to walk after chemotherapy and surgery to remove a large part of his pelvis.
Against the odds, Boreen will walk across the stage this fall when he graduates from SFU with a bachelor of arts. During his studies, he pursued a psychology major with a minor in kinesiology—a path that was highly influenced by personal experience.
“Studying psychology and kinesiology has addressed my interest in getting a full spectrum view of the body–both the mind and the physiology,” says Boreen. “It helps me understand myself better.”
His studies have also helped him understand not only himself, but his loved ones: “My sister has a very rare neurological disorder called STXBP1,” says Boreen, “So that was also a big push. I've always been interested in studying the brain.”
However, Boreen’s path to SFU and a degree wasn't easy. As a child with mobility challenges, he found himself often excluded from activities with his peers and bullied for his weight. Boreen also developed scoliosis that required a major spinal surgery. At this time in his life, he began to suffer from anxiety and depression that further affected his physical health and grades.
“It can be quite lonely when you have a cancer diagnosis, especially at a young age,” says Boreen. “After treatment, as I tried to reintegrate with my peers in school, it was a pretty difficult time. When one thinks of the suffering caused by having a disability, it’s not necessarily the big surgeries that hurt the most.”
Boreen recalls hitting a low of frustration that became a major turning point in his life. After a lifetime of being told his physical disabilities meant he would not be capable, Boreen no longer wanted to be defined by others expectations. “It was reclaiming agency. I can take my body into my own hands and turn it into what I want it to be.” At this point, Boreen began his life-changing fitness journey, to improve both his physical and mental health.
When he found little support or information about weightlifting with a disability, Boreen used self-guided research and trial to develop a personalized and adapted regimen. He documented his journey on Instagram, built a following and became certified as a trainer by the British Columbia Recreation and Parks Association. With his platform, others have reached out to Boreen for advice on developing their own workouts with limited mobility, physical disabilities and other circumstances similar to his own.
Living with chronic pain, Boreen has ups and downs, which he works through with patience and diligent rehabilitation. While persistent in his workout routine when possible, he has also spent long lengths of time on bed rest. Boreen hopes his success and the Terry Fox Gold Medal bring pride to his parents, who have provided both him and his sister care and support through tough circumstances.
Reflecting on Terry Fox and his Marathon of Hope, Boreen wonders about Terry’s thoughts during his run. “I wonder what he was dealing with mentally at the time. Receiving a diagnosis at 18 years old, having these limitations put on himself, and he says, ‘I'm going to overcome those,’” says Boreen.
“There's no other person in the public sphere that can really empower cancer survivors and people with physical disabilities like Terry Fox did,” says Boreen. “He's such a beacon of hope and will and is really one of our Canadian heroes. For somebody who loses an arm or a leg to cancer, to have a role model who says ‘I'm going to overcome’ is a really powerful, simple message that resonates with many of us.”
As he moves onto his career post convocation, Boreen will also continue to empower others with varied physical abilities through personal training. “A lot of us have been told ‘this is what you're not going to be able to do’, here are the constraints put on you with these cards you're dealt. To me, empowerment means it doesn't necessarily have to be that way,” says Boreen.
“It's very liberating to succeed in a place that you are typically not supposed to.”
SFU's annual Terry Fox Run takes place Friday, September 23, 2022. The event honours the legacy of former SFU student Terry Fox and raises money for cancer research through the Terry Fox Foundation. Learn more about how to get involved.