In 1996, Casting for Recovery, a national non-profit organization, began to support breast-cancer survivors in a rather unique way–through fly-fishing. This is accomplished through weekend retreats that combine fly-fishing with counseling and medical information to help participants focus on wellness.
Why fly-fishing? A physical benefit is the casting movement, which mimics some of the physical-therapy exercises used to increase range of motion and mobility as well as to move fluids through the lymph system, which prevents or alleviates lymphedema. Emotionally, the serenity that comes with fly-fishing, the satisfaction of learning a new skill, and the bonds created by learning in a group setting draw participants.
Each day, 500 women in this country are diagnosed with breast cancer. Many are reluctant to join traditional cancer-related support groups because they remind patients of hospitals and treatment, while others don’t think they need a support group.
Casting for Recovery is not a traditional support group. It is a two-and-a-half-day retreat offered free of charge to participants, and led by trained volunteers. Retreats are open to women at any age and stage of treatment and recovery. “We appeal to those women who might not be your typical candidates for a support group,” says Kate Fox, director of communications at Casting for Recovery’s national office. “Since we accept women at any age and level of treatment or recovery, the bonding among the women is incredible because they learn from each other.”
Even though the program includes fly-fishing, it has more of an impact than just catching fish. “The women learn and master a new skill, and they learn that they have the disease in common–that they are not alone,” says Debbie Hampton, coordinator and retreat leader for the Ohio Chapter of Casting for Recovery, a Buckeye Fly-Fishers board member and a customer-service representative by day.
“We had two retreats in 1996. For 2010 we have 45 retreats scheduled in 30 states,” says Fox. “Each retreat is developed by a team of volunteers in the community who make an application to bring the retreat program to their area and undergo training at our office.”
“The women learn a new sport, and it gives them hope. We reintroduce them to the beauty of the outdoors, and it is rejuvenating,” says Hampton. “Like many women, they take care of everyone else. But not at the retreat–for this weekend, it is all about them–no cooking or cleaning.”
“We find that bringing women out of the pressures of day-to-day life and into a setting where they learn how to master a new skill with complete support from the instructors helps the women to share information and create bonds with those going through the same thing,” says Fox. “About 70 percent of the women do not belong to a support group to help them move from treatment to recovery.”
Medical doctors refer patients to the Casting for Recovery program because it takes over from treatment. “We help the women realize they are going to move beyond treatment and into recovery,” says Fox. “We have a saying here, ‘To fish is to hope’.”
Retreat Schedule“At our Casting for Recovery retreats, we have 14 participants and nine volunteer staff members,” says Kerri Russell, state coordinator and retreat leader for the Arkansas Chapter of Casting for Recovery.
The retreat begins on Friday afternoon and rolls into an evening spent getting acquainted. On Saturday, the women learn to fly-fish before they are sent out on Sunday with their own personal volunteer river helper, who helps them catch a fish. “We have evening circle on Friday and Saturday nights, which includes helping women understand more about their disease, and they bond with each other,” says Russell. The program closes with a luncheon that includes acknowledgements of the river helpers and a graduation ceremony for the women.
Raising Funds And Finding VolunteersThe program is supported by The Hartford, Under Armour and other businesses, such as Emotion Kayaks and Temple Fork Outfitters, which donate a portion of their sales; the Susan G. Komen for the Cure is active with the group as well.
The Ohio Chapter of Casting for Recovery has an annual fish-a-thon to raise money for the retreats. Hampton credits the support team for planning and receiving support from the Susan G. Komen for the Cure in Cincinnati and Columbus, the Pink Ribbon Girls, as well as local businesses, such as Reynolds and Reynolds.
Nationwide, the retreats are managed and supported by over 1,500 volunteers. “Our volunteers have a variety of skill sets, including medical and psychosocial expertise,” says Hampton. “The volunteers are good listeners and are compassionate. They strive to make the retreat whatever the ladies need it to be. Plus, our volunteers like to have fun.”
“The volunteers need to know how to work with women in recovery,” says Fox. “The effects of the retreat are seen well after the weekend. And, it is important that the volunteers realize that this has an impact beyond the day.”
“We typically host 14 participants at a time and keep the number small to make sure everyone gets the attention that they need,” says Hampton. “For that, we need 11 volunteers, but that number can change based on the ladies’ diagnoses and treatment.” Fly-fishing instructors come from local fly-fishing organizations as well as outfitters. In Ohio, instructors are from the Buckeye United Fly-Fishers and the Central Ohio Fly-Fishers associations.
Retreating To Advance
“The retreat location should be a beautiful, relaxing, natural environment where the women can feel pampered and bond with each other,” says Fox. Casting for Recovery’s facility requirements include locations for reception, evening circle, classrooms and graduation, plus open areas to practice casting. Bunk beds are not required, but enough beds for at least 25 women (participants plus volunteers) are needed so there is no sharing a bed; restroom and shower facilities also are required. The location must be within 20 minutes of medical care at a hospital. Fishing locations must be within a 20-minute drive to a river or pond for catch-and-release fly-fishing and wading.
“We strive for the atmosphere of the location to be very tranquil and away from the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life,” says Hampton. “We host our program at the Indian Bear Lodge in Walhonding, Ohio. It is a private campground facility with well-manicured ponds within walking distance.”