By Christine Tumpson | Photographs from Beth Gazda and Dizy Kapalka
The concept behind Casting for Recovery (CfR) is amazing and beautiful. Offering free fly fishing retreats for breast cancer patients, 70 percent of whom have never been to a support group, according to CfR, the international nonprofit has 45 retreats currently running nationwide. Its positive program allows 600 women a year to gain peace and grace in the rivers, thanks to the support of more than 1,600 volunteers, including medical and psychosocial professionals, fly fishing instructors, and alumni.
The growing interest in the power of alternative healing techniques led Dr. Judy Balk to volunteer on a recent retreat. In late August, a local group retreated to the HomeWaters Club in Spruce Creek, Pa., for 2 1/2 days. As a gynecologist with the Allegheny Health Network, Balk’s expertise begins with her own first-hand observations, as she describes an astounding experience in the mountain streams.
“First, there is the emotional support that women gain,” she says. “Second, there is the actual fishing, which is a form of activity that does not require a lot of strength. The motion on the casting arm is beneficial for women who have breast cancer surgery because it is a fluid motion that improves range of motion. It requires balance, and some women have neuropathy after chemotherapy. For that reason, each participant has her own River Helper, who is an experienced fly fisher and helps the participant with all aspects, including assistance with balance if needed.”
“Also, living with cancer is challenging because it is living with uncertainty, and can feel like a lot of waiting — for test results, for symptoms, for possible recurrence,” she continues. “Casting for Recovery works on living mindfully, and fly fishing is a perfect example of living mindfully. One is being in a beautiful stream with trees and water and fish; one is feeling the water on the waders and the stream going by, all while remaining comfortable. Clearly, fishing is waiting for the fish while one is casting and enjoying the scenery and the sensations, and the metaphor is that one can live with cancer mindfully, enjoying the scenery, waiting without waiting.”
Quality of life programs like Casting for Recovery are gaining traction not only with patients and supporters, but within the medical community itself. More and more patients are seeking alternative programs to complement their traditional treatments and therapies, and more physicians and cancer centers are acknowledging the importance of treating the “whole patient,” emphasizing the importance of emotional and psychological resources for their patients. Pet therapy for reducing post-traumatic stress disorder among Vietnam veterans, and dance therapy for seniors suffering from depression have both produced empirical evidence demonstrating these programs are providing life-changing benefits.
Dizy Kapalka of Cabot, Pa., is a breast cancer patient who participated in the 2013 Casting for Recovery retreat. When asked about the program, her answer brings a level of understanding that underscores the humanity of the program as well and the healing power of the rivers that run through it.
“After recently completing treatment for a recurrence of breast cancer, I was left feeling emotionally and physically weak,” she says. “There had been much uncertainty about treatment and insurance coverage that had compounded the issues of a second diagnosis. I had never attended a support group with either of my cancer diagnoses. I just didn’t feel it was right for me.”
“When I arrived at the retreat at HomeWaters, the scenery was beautiful, peaceful, and serene,” she continues. “The entire experience was amazing, and on Sunday, I felt a shift in my emotional health. I felt like I had finally healed from the inside out. In the morning before fishing, we gathered on the front porch of the late 1700s stone house for our spiritual gathering. The beautiful healing sound of the water could be heard. We then chose stones to throw in the stream to signify something to let go of, or an intention for ourselves from this weekend. I grabbed up a couple stones and threw them with all my might. One stone represented fear, and the other cancer. I let them go that morning.”
“The time on the stream with my River Helper was one of the most memorable times of my life. The laughter, the peace, the challenge, and focus it takes to cast the line, watch your fly, and hope for the perfect drift to catch a fish. When I caught my first trout, the excitement was beyond explanation. I held it briefly, kissed it, and gently released it back into the water and watched it swim away. It was not only beautiful, but it was healing as well. I have continued to fly fish because on the stream there isn’t room for other thoughts, fears, or problems. It is you and the peaceful surroundings, your casting, focus — and hopefully, a fish!”
Casting for Recovery, castingforrecovery.org.
Casting for Recovery was founded in 1996 in Manchester, Vt., by a breast cancer reconstructive surgeon and a professional fly fisher. Casting for Recovery’s innovative program focuses on breast cancer survivorship and improving quality of life, and has garnered endorsements from medical and psychosocial experts. Awarded 501(c)(3) nonprofit status in 1998, Casting for Recovery has inspired international efforts in Canada, UK/Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. To date, Casting for Recovery has conducted more than 550 retreats, serving more than 7,500 women nationwide. In 2016, the nonprofit will hold 45 retreats in 42 states, serving 630 women.