Casting away cancer's pain

Fishing: Fly-fishing serves an appropriate dual role for Casting for Recovery, a program that offers breast cancer survivors a weekend of healing for the mind and body.

July 26, 2000|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

STOWE, Vt. - Twelve women, each with a piece of green yarn draped around her neck like a string of pearls. Each with a diploma in hand. Each with tears in her eyes.

It's time for the women with cancer to go home, taking with them lessons learned about friendship - and about fly-fishing.

"Do we have to go?" asks Joanie Bennett of no one in particular.

These women are the latest graduates of Casting for Recovery, a weekend retreat for breast cancer survivors that combines fly-fishing instruction with medical, psychological and social support. The rhythmic, repetitive motion of casting a fly line is a balm for the senses and a benefit to muscles and tissue devastated by surgery.

Since the first class of 12 in 1996, the program has graduated nearly 400 women in nine states. Next year, organizers hope to add retreats in Maryland and Northern Virginia.

Casting for Recovery is all about hope. Participants hope to catch a fish. They hope tomorrow will be a better day.

Joan Toll already has a plan for a better tomorrow, and it involves fly-fishing. "I get my first Social Security check next month. I guess I know what I'll use it for," she says with a big smile. "Gear."

Toll and the others finger the yarn, gently tied by psychotherapist Nancy Polseno.

"You are forever connected to us," Polseno tells them. "We are forever connected to you."

Casting for Recovery is a nonprofit organization, with an annual operating budget of $200,000.

"That doesn't mean we have $200,000. That means we're hoping to raise that," says Seline Skoug, the executive director, who works out of her home in a Boston suburb to cut expenses.

Grants from organizations, such as Race for the Cure, and local fund raising allow everyone to attend for free. Last year, the governor of Vermont included Casting for Recovery in a $130,000 allocation for a dozen state cancer groups.

Skoug fields the phone calls from women - and from husbands and fathers calling on behalf of their wives and daughters - all pleading for one of the limited number of retreat openings. She says she took 70 calls from 23 states in the past two months.

"Clearly, the demand outstrips our resources in a big way," Skoug says.

Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer found among U.S. women, and more than 2 million survivors are living in the United States, according to the National Alliance for Breast Cancer Organizations. Currently, more than half of all breast cancers are discovered at an early stage, before spreading. The five-year survival rate after early-stage treatment is 96 percent.

The program was founded by Gwenn Perkins of Manchester, not a breast cancer survivor but an avid fly-fisherman. She noticed that a doctor was recommending breast cancer patients to take up fly-fishing. The casting motion is similar to exercises used in therapy after surgery.

Skoug will be in Maryland this fall, scouting for retreat locations and sponsors, medical and financial. The program already has trained one breast cancer survivor from Northern Virginia as an instructor.

"We try to find openings, sending an Ohio woman to an Alaska group. But the best scenario is that they stay in their own area to be with women close to home," she says.

Casting for Recovery also relies on donations, such as the one from the owner of the Commodores Inn, the site of this retreat. The owner, who lost his wife to cancer two years ago, has picked up part of the cost of lodging and meals for the 19 retreat participants, who include instructors and medical staff.

Names and faces

The women check in Friday night. They have come from all over Vermont, many from rural areas where cancer isn't discussed openly. Over wine and cheese, they get to know each other.

Toll explains she was ready to attend two years ago, but had to have a cancerous kidney removed. Maryanne McDonough, a nurse, has had cancer three times.

Liz Cronin is a scrappy physical education teacher whose auburn hair was straight until cancer treatment unexpectedly gave her curls. She confides that she learned she had been stricken on April 1 last year ("April Fool's, it was a pretty bad joke.").

Karon Given is, at 36, the youngest participant. Diagnosed in December during her first mammogram, she faces six more weeks of chemotherapy, then radiation and then hormone therapy.

"I live to fish," she tells the group, her eyes dancing brightly beneath the baseball cap that covers her baldness. "I have three rods in the car," gifts from her family to encourage her new hobby.

Untangling lines, lives

On Saturday morning, the women begin an itinerary that recognizes how fragile health can override even a burning desire to become an angler.

"This is not a fly-fishing club," says program director Susan Balch during breakfast. She tells them they can learn the knots, practice the casts and learn about the types of flies if they want to. Or not.

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