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Casting for recovery

Author: By Diana Price

Sonoma County, California, resident Liz Larew had never spent time in a hospital beyond treatment for a bee sting allergy when in 2007, at age 52, she was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer. The journey that ensued included a series of diagnostic tests and surgeries followed by four months of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, and more than five weeks of radiation. It left Liz reeling as she dealt with the physical blow of the diagnosis and learned to navigate the medical system.

It was in the midst of her treatment that she came across a flyer for a women’s flyfishing retreat for breast cancer survivors hosted by Casting for Recovery (CFR). The national organization—founded in 1996 by a professional fly fisher and a breast reconstructive surgeon and based in Manchester, Vermont—serves breast cancer survivors in all stages of recovery and treatment. The retreats are provided at no cost to participants; they are held at fishing lodges and inns around the country and are staffed by medical and counseling professionals in addition to the volunteer fishing instructors who coach women on both the land and the water. Throughout the two-and-a-halfday experience, women benefit from not only the joy of acquiring a new skill and enjoying a beautiful place but also the company of other survivors.

The opportunity spoke to her, Liz says, as she thought about childhood fishing trips with her father. “When I was a child, we went fishing in the countryside in Virginia, and I have memories of the bamboo poles and of climbing over fences and running through big pastures—dodging bulls with enormous horns— to get to the fishing pond.” Fishing remained a bond between her father and her, she says, despite their sometimes-challenging relationship. “Fishing was always a common ground. Even when I came home as an adult, we’d put the poles in the back of the truck and head out to the fishing pond. It was always a calming time; we knew we didn’t have to try to talk—we were just there together.”

Having lost her father suddenly in 2002, Liz felt compelled— by her memories and a desire to learn something new and explore a beautiful landscape—to look into the CFR program. In September 2010, after applying to the random selection for participants several times, Liz’s name was chosen and she attended a retreat in Mt. Shasta, California.

“It was a real turning point in my cancer journey,” Liz says of the CFR retreat. Having completed treatment in 2008, Liz was still recovering from the physical and emotional impact of the diagnosis. Taking the step to attend the retreat represented a major advance, she says. “It was the first time since diagnosis and treatment that I had gone on a trip by myself—actually got in the car and drove myself that far—so that was a victory in itself.” Once at the retreat, the welcome from CFR staff and the other participants was immediate. “From the moment I walked into the hotel, I was greeted with open arms and made to feel so welcome and so safe.”

With instruction about fishing—from gear to entomology to casting—along with opportunities for counseling, peer support, and medical expertise, the benefits to CFR participants are far-reaching. The physical activity involved in flycasting itself—which mimics many exercises prescribed for breast cancer survivors recovering from radiation and surgery—is an additional benefit. But for many women, it is actually the chance to think about anything but breast cancer that becomes the most significant reward of the retreat. “Just being held in that group of women who had a common experience and being able to talk about it and yet get away from it at the same time was powerful,” Liz says. “[Cancer] was not necessarily the focus and yet was the reason we were all there.”

Fran McNeill, who has served as a psychosocial facilitator at CFR retreats since 1998, says the weekends “offer a unique retreat experience and a new adventure in a nurturing environment for all the women. Many participants have no support group experience, and it is rare that women have the chance to spend 48 hours away from the routine of daily life in a beautiful environment, connecting with other women who have journeyed a similar path. CFR affirms courage, hope, and support from and for all who attend.”

Liz certainly felt that her experience provided her with courage, hope, and support—along with a unique spiritual experience that brought her a sense of peace in the wake of the diagnosis and the treatment. On the final day of the retreat, the women headed out to the river, each with her own River Helper, to put their new skills and knowledge to work. As Liz stood in her waders in the Sacramento River, she was overcome with the beauty and the blessing of the moment: “I’m standing there in the middle of the river—it was partly rainy and cloudy, and then the sun would come through and everything would sparkle. It was so beautiful. I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would be doing this—after my diagnosis I remember thinking, Will life ever be normal again?—and here I was. And then, in that moment, I realized that my dad was with me and had been with me the whole time.” It was a glimpse of hard-won clarity, Liz says, and one she relished. “I just stopped and looked around and breathed it all in.”

Ultimately, CFR retreats offer a variety of gifts, each as unique as the individual participants who attend. For some the gift is the path to physical rehabilitation that fishing can provide; for some it is the opportunity to leave the reality of cancer behind as they escape into a new adventure; for others it is the support offered by a group of women who, as Liz says, “speak the same language”; and some, like Liz, carry home a sense of spiritual renewal, provided by the moving water, beautiful landscape, and fresh air. For all, the retreat is a powerful gift they give themselves. As Liz says as she reflects on her overall experience at CFR, “It was healing. It was affirmation that I can do this: I can still learn new things, I can take this journey, and not only will I survive—I will thrive.”

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