To the creek, to cure the soul

Casting For Recovery gives cancer survivors camaraderie, escape

Health & Fitness

September 05, 2004|By Joyce Winslow | Joyce Winslow,Special to the Sun

Let go, let the line do the work," fly-fishing instructor Carole Miller tells 15 breast cancer survivors who practice casting into a picture-perfect pond at Shrine Mont Hotel in Orkney Springs, Va.

For the next three days, these women, many of whom never held a rod, will learn technique, river biology and the confounding wiles of trout thanks to Casting For Recovery, a national nonprofit foundation that helps women cope with the physical and emotional challenges of their disease.

"I came because I was sick and tired of being sick and tired," says Deborah Nasteff-Cornwell, 53, a claims adjuster from Arnold. "After three bouts with breast cancer, I am happy to focus on something else."

In fact, the sport, which relies more on finesse than muscle, may be just what the doctor ordered for women who have undergone a mastectomy.

"Fly-casting's gentle overhead motion promotes arm mobility and may also help prevent lymphedema, the swelling of arms after a breast and lymph nodes are removed," explains Casting For Recovery national director Seline Skoug.

The program was conceived by a breast surgeon and is funded in large part by Orvis, fly-fishing outfitters based in Manchester, Vt.

Since 1996, Casting For Recovery has taught more than 1,200 breast cancer survivors to fly-fish and stocked women's anglers clubs with new enthusiasts. About 82 percent of CFR retreat graduates say they intend to pursue the sport. The catch-and-release rules are appealing to women, many who are fighting for their own lives and don't want to kill another living thing.

"I like that this sport ends up with life on the end of it," says Sheilah Levin, 62, a pediatric nurse in Waldorf who has been undergoing cancer treatments during the last 14 years. "The fish get another chance, and so do we as we explore what it feels like to stand in the middle of a river, hear it cascade over rocks and see beautiful scenery."

"Make your fly go splat on the water like the bugs we see today," says Kiki Galvin, president of Chesapeake Women Anglers, who co-host several Casting For Recovery retreats in the region. Four female instructors, along with psychosocial and medical facilitators, dart among novices with advice, bug spray, cold water and sunscreen.

"Hydrate," urges medical adviser Judy Macon.

"How goes the experience of the retreat?" asks therapist Ursula Daniel, who holds nightly, confidential group sessions where women unwind and speak about their fears.

"When I first arrived, I felt trepidation," says Joan Kapalka, 45, a sixth-grade teacher in Reston, Va. "I'd never been in a support group, never chose to spend time with strangers. But after only a few words I understood we were all people who had faced mortality and would never feel released from having had cancer. We bonded in ways I've never felt before."

Ranging in age from 32 to 67, the women have little in common except no experience fishing and too much experience with cancer. They include a real estate agent, ladies who lunch, moms who work and women unable to work because of their illness.

"There is an intense feeling of security and camaraderie when you all live and sleep in the same house for three days," says Cindy Redefer, 41, a Dewey Beach mother of two toddlers. "A cancer diagnosis melts masks you generally put up when you meet new people. Hey, I showed my reconstructed breast to 10 women here. People say when you have babies you lose your modesty," she says, grinning. "Try breast cancer."

A welcome escape

The second day of the retreat, women sit four to a table, learning how to tie flies out of fluff and wire.

Trout are finicky eaters, quick to decline a fly missing crucial feathers meant to mimic antennae or legs. Chesapeake Women Anglers instructor Norma Kawecki demonstrates how to make artificial Mayflies float and how to add a sinker to submerge the Royal Coachmen fly.

Many flies have fairy-tale names, a fact that provides welcome escape for women who are coping with harsh realities.

Retreat organizers are careful not to overtax the women's stamina and to make every participant feel good.

Rhonda Bady-Hill, 42, a director of volunteers for homeless shelters in Leesburg, Va., is surprised with a birthday cake and candles at dinner. She just lost a sister to breast cancer and is battling her own cancer.

"I've dreamt my whole life about fishing, and my dream comes true because of cancer," she says, crying. "It has its benefits," she says of the disease. "I haven't had a real birthday party since I was a child. I'll never forget this."

The first fish

Day Three, looking more professional than they feel in waders, boots, vests and rods loaned by Orvis, the women slosh into Smith's Creek, about a 40-minute drive from the Shrine Mont Hotel.

Smith's Creek is a magnificent stream owned by breast cancer survivor and Virginia resident Patti Smith, her husband and three other couples. "I can't think of a better way to use it," Smith says.

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