By Dr. Amy Rothenberg
Turns out June is National Cancer Survivor Month. Congratulations to survivors reading this post. May you keep up the good fight, may you be guided by compassionate doctors and healers, and may your journey be smooth.
I celebrated by spending a weekend with the program Casting for Recovery (CfR) at a retreat center in New Hampshire. As a long-time naturopathic doctor, and cancer survivor/thriver, I teach and recommend to patients in treatment and survivors/thrivers all the many ways to impact quality of life and health outcomes related to diet, exercise, nutritional supplements, botanical medicine, the head game, and more. I like to walk the walk and model healthy living for all my patients. That includes finding ways to spend time in nature, learning new things, and being part of community with others. These last part is what motivated me to apply for this program.
I have never been fly fishing. The closest I ever got to casting was the beautiful scene in A River Runs Through It. But a patient of mine shared how much she enjoyed a CfR retreat and encouraged me to apply. CfR is an organization that offers fly fishing retreats for breast cancer patients and survivors. Applicants are chosen by lottery, and all lodging, meals, loaner gear, and instruction is provided at no cost to participants. While fly fishing is the focus of the retreat, there is so much more going on by the intentional creation of time and space for meaningful social interaction. CfR’s mission is “to enhance the lives of women with breast cancer by connecting them to each other and nature through the therapeutic sport of fly fishing.”
In its 26th year, CfR will hold 55 retreats across the country this year serving over 700 women. More than 10,000 women with breast cancer enjoyed the opportunity to participate. Perhaps even more impressive, the organization depends on more than 1,800 volunteers who help with hospitality coordination, medical talks and group support, fly fishing lessons, photography, and individual water guide instruction. I am fairly certain that everyone in our 11 person group felt safe, taken care of, encouraged, and inspired throughout our several days together.
I arrive with an open heart and a curious mind, and very few expectations. And I’m not going to lie, I am immediately taken in by the gear! The waders! The nets! The littler nippers. The magnifying glass that clipped onto the cap. I love learning about various kinds of insects and flies, both those in nature and those that are tied, and which best attract fish in what conditions. I am not thrilled at the idea of actually catching a fish and in the end, I didn’t! I am more interested in sharing a novel outdoor experience with others, and in this case, to connect with women whose lives had been impacted by cancer.
I know that learning something new, especially when stakes are low, meaning there would is no grading, it does not matter if this becomes a lifelong pursuit or not, there is no competition— this kind of learning has a way of re-invigorating, and giving a boost in energy for other unrelated ways I make a living and enjoy spending my time. I also love being around people who are passionate about whatever they are passionate about and I can attest, there are many fly fishing devotees among the helpful, kind-hearted, and good- humored volunteer staff. This kind of passion is “catching,” and in a good way!
Like most anything worth learning, life metaphors and lessons arise. How timing is everything. How patience is essential. How being present matters. I keep thinking about the phrase, “hook., line & sinker,” and the idea of covering the whole topic of any subject. With casting, the part of the line that goes behind at first, will be what guides where and how far your line goes in front of you, i.e. sometimes it’s the background work that leads to outcomes desired. I could go on!
Surely those more experienced have written eloquently about both the technique and the art of fly fishing, but I can say, learning the basics of casting in a grassy field on a sunny day in June, the wispy breeze in my face, the gentle heft of the fishing rod in my hand, and watching the arc of the line as I learn how to pull my arm back, but not too far, hesitate, but not too long, and bring it forward, is every bit a thrill. The gentle whipping motion of false casting is mesmerizing, and also subtle. This is a “right, not might” kind of activity, which I always prefer. But my pleasure begins even before that.
I love slipping my rod out of its hand-sewn cloth sac, putting the two parts of the rod together. I love how I am instructed to line up the metal loops to hold my line, which grow smaller along the length of the rod. I marvel at the subtle plastic grooves that allow my reel to slip into place and how I lock it there by spinning the threaded parts into place. Guiding my folded fishing line through the series of ever-shrinking loops is reminiscent of threading a sewing machine, as is learning about the tension button I might use while fishing. I lean in when we practice a few commonly used knots, calling me back to summer afternoons making macrame plant hangers, or hand sewn books, and other crafts I enjoy.
When I step into my waders with their booties attached, when I snap myself into the bib overalls, and pull on my skyblue CfR baseball cap, I feel like I am walking into a different life. My kind and capable water guide helps me tie my first fly on, and shows me a tiny fully closed hoop near my reel that I have not seen, a small safe place to park my hook while we wade into our spot on the water. I snap his collapsable, cork-handled walking stick into action for balance on the slippery, rocky entrance to the lake. I love equipment that has been thought about and makes sense. I like learning how things work.
Standing in the still water, casting and waiting, being quiet and still, absorbing the lake air, the damp woods behind me, a great blue heron glides overhead, the whisper of its graceful wings the only sound that moment, I understand that catching and releasing a fish is the goal and is also not the goal. Immersed in another world, literally and figuratively, brings quiet joy and peace.
For many cancer patients and survivors alike, stepping away from life responsibilities, from cancer and from treatment, or having a break from anxiety or overthinking, whenever and however it can be found, is essential and is just what all doctors should order. There is another program REEL, similar in intent, for men survivors of any cancers. And of course, there are many other resources for cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers. I often talk about the “head game,” including attitude, tools for stress management, a posture of gratitude, and having people you talk to and process with are all part of the healing path. We can add fly fishing to that list.
An almost immediate camaraderie among fellow fishers arises, from shared experience and the capable staff’s efforts. Time is set aside to talk about medical questions that participants have, and another gathering to address more psycho-emotional parts. These two sessions, at least at the retreat I attend, correctly overlap quite a bit, and it is beautiful to behold and be part of the community that comes together to support each person as personal stories and anecdotes and unfold and information, love, and encouragement are served up in equal measure.
Cancer is a serious topic so I am happy there is a good sprinkling of gallows humor, too. We all need to take our needs seriously and feel validation and we alo sometimes do well to not take ourselves too seriously! Laughter pouring out of our circle is also healing, especially because some things only other survivors could possible understand, relate to and find funny!
In my upcoming book, You Finished Treatment, Now What? A Field Guide for Cancer Survivors, I write a chapter devoted to the essential need for community and its impact on both quality of life, and health outcomes. CfR gets high marks for that as well as its emphasis on physical activity, and time in nature, all of which lead to better health for cancer patients/survivors and really, for all populations. If you or someone you know might enjoy and benefit from such a retreat, share this post. And if you’d like to volunteer with or donate to CfR, see their informative website. May we all have opportunities for fun, for learning something new, and for the power of interpersonal connection!