In late September, 14 women gathered at the Prairie Club in Valentine, Neb., to learn the art of fly fishing. The participants were chosen through a lottery-style drawing to attend the 2013 Casting for Recovery retreat, a free weekend for breast cancer survivors. The retreat is about finding new strength and confidence, and building a belief in the ability to overcome the challenges ahead.
As they learned to cast a fly rod and tie flies, the women discovered something unexpected — a special sisterhood that blossomed in just three days. All the participants, who had been strangers to one another, also had dealt with the ravages that cancer works on the spirit, the body and the soul.
Casting for Recovery was founded in Vermont in 1996 by a breast reconstructive surgeon, Dr. Benita Walton, and professional fly fisher Gwenn Perkins.
Their goal was to combine the therapeutic qualities of fly fishing with emotional healing. The motion of the arms while casting is beneficial both to healing after surgery and to management of the lymphedema (tissue swelling) that so many women get after the lymphatic system has been compromised.
Walton also felt that the gentle qualities of nature would help with spiritual and mental healing.
Omahan Linda Lovgren, a survivor and avid fly fisher, attended a similar retreat and was so impressed that she contacted the national CFR office. In 2011, she and her friend Martha Stofko launched the Nebraska chapter. This year marked their third retreat.
The weekend began with the participants sharing a little about themselves. The evening was filled with much laughter and a few tears as the women bonded with others who had traveled a similar journey.
Saturday started with a sunrise hike to the Snake River Canyon, followed by sessions on fishing basics. There were short lessons on fly-fishing equipment, knots, river etiquette and what fish eat.
In the afternoon, the ladies learned how to tie flies that they could keep as keepsakes or use while fishing. Advanced casting and an additional fly-tying session were available after lunch. Surprises and small gifts throughout made the weekend extra special.
The retreat is about more than fishing. On Saturday, Judeen Andrews, an oncology physician assistant and breast cancer survivor, hosted a question-and-answer session about the effects of breast cancer and treatment drugs on the body. There are many questions that women with breast cancer do not feel comfortable asking their male doctors, and Andrews' gentle humor put everyone at ease.
After a gourmet dinner, the women attended the evening circle, a confidential meeting with psycho-social facilitator Sue Oakes. The participant-only meeting gave the women an opportunity to talk about the psychological and emotional obstacles that cancer survivors experience. Many survivors worry about recurrence, experience depression and have questions about their mortality and body issues.
The excitement began growing as fishing day approached. Sunday was a sunny day with perfect temperatures. In the morning, the group loaded the van and traveled to the Snake Falls Sportsman's Club at Snake River Falls, wearing hip waders and boots and filled with their newfound knowledge.
They met their river helpers, volunteer guides from the club. Mike Adams of Fremont, whose wife died right after last year's trip from metastatic breast cancer, has volunteered since the first year. He coordinates the other helpers. Survivors were paired with river helpers and fishing locations suited to their physical ability.
After the fishing was over, staff, river helpers and participants met for one last meal and a graduation ceremony. Then they left for their homes, taking with them a little piece of heaven that only this retreat could give them.
Memories from happy campers
From Mary Drudik of Burwell, Neb.:
“The experience from the weekend retreat was phenomenal. To spend time and develop friendships with such strong women was empowering. To find someone else that has gone through similar experiences and understands the emotional phases, the 'at times' physical limitations such as yourself without having to explain it over and over again. Finding humor in your experiences from this 'sisterhood' was a great spiritual and strength regaining opportunity. What an opportunity with fly-fishing to achieve something, by the physical involvement as well as the calming, rhythm it takes to cast your line and flow with the stream to get your catch! All-around great retreat, or rather treat for those of us that have achieved, but not without physical and emotional scars with recovery!”
Roberta Courter of Omaha, a 20-year survivor:
“It was amazing how quickly we could bond in a weekend ... My only complaint was that we weren't there long enough. The food was very good, just didn't need dessert at every meal! I was an alternate last year and was selected this year. I didn't really know what to expect. My favorite uncle was a fly fisherman, and when I had this opportunity to go, I just kept thinking of him and smiling. I loved having my own river guide. He was so informative, kind and determined that I would catch some fish. We kept trying new spots, going up narrow trails and then down again in all my gear. At the river we climbed over branches and then went under big limbs, and I kept getting my boots stuck in the mud. Then we waded out in the middle of the river, and it was amazing. The sights alone were breathtaking. But I did catch fish and have pictures to prove it!”
» To learn more or to apply for next year's retreat, go to castingforrecovery.org.