by Nikki Blum
At the conclusion of every Casting for Recovery retreat, fourteen sets of boots, waders, vests, rods and reels, and a handful of extra odds and ends, are all carefully accounted for, packed up and shipped down the line to the next regional outing. At the end of Northern California’s most recent event, held at Indian Creek Lodge in Douglas City, April 10-12, participant Becky H. found a note sealed protectively inside a Zip-loc ® bag, tucked in the pocket of her fishing vest. The last wearer, from Waco, Texas, had penned the following message:
Dear Breast Cancer Sister Survivor:
I am so glad that you chose to join this group. This is the first time that I have ever been part of any type of cancer group/support group, etc. I was hoping it would be amazing and it was been OVERLY amazing and wonderful. I have met some powerful women and feel privileged to call them my ‘breast friends.’ I hope you make the same connections with your group of ladies that I have!
Founded in 1996, Casting for Recovery (CfR) has held more than 530 retreats nationwide, serving nearly 7,000 women and recently initiated similar programs in Ireland and New Zealand. Participants who attend do so entirely free of charge. During the course of the three-day event, besides learning how to fly fish, they also attend supportive sessions in which they share some of their fears, insights and strategies around dealing with the mental and physical ravages of cancer.
The idea for the organization was born when a reconstructive surgeon, who was also an angler, realized that the repetitive motion of casting a fly rod closely resembled a rehabilitative exercise regularly recommended to patients being treated for breast cancer. But more than the fly fishing experience, most participants — like the woman who wrote the note to the next wearer of her vest — are rewarded with the enduring friendship of individuals who can understand better than anyone else what they are going through.
About 70 percent of all CfR retreat participants report that they have never been part of a support group, an affiliation many breast cancer survivors can’t imagine doing without. At the Indian Creek retreat, most of the volunteers who led the sessions and organized the event were not only themselves cancer survivors, but also alumnae of previous CfR programs.
A case in point is IWFF member Sally Stoner, a Certified Casting Instructor, who has attended every retreat since her first more than a decade ago at Sorensen’s Resort in Hope Valley, South Lake Tahoe, California — less than six months after finishing treatment herself for breast cancer. For her, as for most of the volunteers, the retreat is a way to give back to a sport that has provided so many life lessons.
On Friday afternoon, when the nine staffers and 14 participants came together in Douglas City, one of the first exercises they did was to join separate pieces of fly-line into a continuous circle. Later when the weekend concluded, they circled up again, each with the knot she’d tied between herself and her adjoining fellows. Then the line was cut, in between the knots, so each could return home with a portion of the whole. Susan Dotto, retreat leader for this year’s event, has 11 knots, one for each of the retreats to which she returned as a member of the volunteer staff. One she does not have is from her first retreat because the tradition hadn’t yet taken root at the first ever held in Northern California, which Susan attended as a participant, two years after her own breast cancer diagnosis.
“At every retreat I’ve participated in as staff, I’ve witnessed the change it makes in people’s lives. The reason I come back is –not only do I love the sport of fly fishing, which I learned first as a participant — but the women who I’ve met through Casting for Recovery are amazing. It’s all about the connection, isn’t it?” she said, adding, “Just like the knots.”
Each participant brings her own issues to the event. Alternating with casting lessons and classroom programs on knots, insects and fish-craft, are sessions in which the women discuss a wide range of subjects they find difficult or impossible to share with others who haven’t had their experience with cancer. As one of the attendees, who’s been 20 years in remission, put it, “We all want to live long enough to have survivor’s guilt. But it’s something I just can’t talk about even with my best friends, and we’ve known each other forever.”
On the final morning of the retreat, kitted out in boots, fishing vests and waders, with rods and reels, all provided courtesy of Orvis, the women took up a spot in the river, each with her own River Helper, experienced anglers who come from all over the North State to coach their charges through their first on-the-water experience and to make sure they stay safe and dry.
Most of the River Helpers, like the rest of the staff, are repeat volunteers. One such was Greg Kennedy, a professional fishing guide with The Fly Shop in Redding, now at his fifth retreat. Other River Helpers nodded in agreement when he stood up to say that, despite spending a good part of the every fishing seasons in Kamchatka in the Russian Far East, arguably one of the best trout fisheries in the world, “This is my favorite fishing trip of the year.”
During the fish-out several of newly minted fly fishers felt the tug of a trout at the end of their lines, although none succeeded in bringing a fish to hand. Still, not a trace of disappointment clouded any of the beaming faces arrayed around the table at the celebratory luncheon that followed their time on the Trinity. These were not the same women who’d arrived here two and a half days earlier. After the terrible trial of breast cancer, they had come together with people they didn’t know, learned the basics of a sport they’d never tried, and had an experience they didn’t expect. And each went home convinced of something every veteran angler already knows — that actually catching a fish is really just the bonus, not the game.