Healing in Other Ways

Last summer’s Casting for Recovery reunion included Mt. Lebanon residents Gerri Delaney (left, sitting), Chris Needles (fifth from left) and Jenny Wilburn (top, center, in green).

More than 8,000 breast cancer survivors, all over the world, have one thing in common: for one weekend, on streams from Maine to Montana, in the U.K. and Australia, they thought about something other than their cancer.

Since 1998, Casting for Recovery (CfR), an international nonprofit organization founded by a breast reconstruction surgeon and a professional fly fisher, has held weekend retreats in beautiful natural surroundings for women who  have had breast cancer. The vehicle for these healing retreats, which offer peer support, education and relaxation, is learning the skill of fly-fishing, a sport most women haven’t tried.  In addition to the thrill of learning a new sport, the women benefit from the gentle motions of fly-casting, which doctors say is therapeutic for the after-effects of surgery and radiation.

The Western Pennsylvania retreat is usually held in August. For the past few years, it has been held at Homewaters/River Village, a private fishing resort tucked away in Spruce Creek near the Juniata River. The resort accommodates 14 women and retreat staff in rustic, elegant lodgings.

The all-female staff includes retreat coordinators, a doctor or nurse specialist, psychologist/social workers, fly-fishing instructors, and a hospitality volunteer to ensure that everyone gets enough liquids, snacks, sunscreen. There is plenty of bonding, sharing of experiences, TLC—and fishing instruction.  On Sunday morning, the chance to fish with an experienced river guide caps off the weekend. Volunteers raise the funding for these retreats, which are provided at no cost to women of all ages in various stages of recovery.

Fly fishing instructor Bridget Shields with survivor Gerri Delaney

A number of Mt. Lebanon women are among the 110 breast cancer survivors who have benefitted from these retreats. For the past three years, former retreat participants have attended a CfR Western Pennsylvania reunion. This year it took place in May at the West Deer Center in the Country in Allison Park. About 20 women representing each retreat year since the program began here in 2009, came to the reunion to reconnect, fly fish (there’s a creek nearby), enjoy lunch, and hear a speaker on wellness.  Among the local participants were Gerrie Delaney, Jenny Wilburn and Chris Needles.

Dr. Judith Balk, a gynecologist who lives in Mt. Lebanon and volunteers as a medical liaison at the CfR Western Pennsylvania retreats, is passionate about the program. At the retreats, Balk leads discussions about the physical and emotional effects of breast cancer. The experience of fly-fishing is something of a metaphor for how to exist with cancer in a healthy way, she says: “Much of having cancer is about waiting.  [In fly fishing] You’re practicing how to wait by being in the moment, attending to what is happening right now: listening to the birds, the trees, the sound and feel of the water against your waders. Watching the fly on your line.”

The retreats show women a healthy way to live with cancer, says Balk: “You’re broadening your world—even just a little bit—in a very safe atmosphere with people who’ve had your same experience. And, you’re pampered a bit with delicious food and beautiful surroundings. It can be life-changing.”

At the reunions, the women recall the impact the Spruce Creek retreat had on them and share the experiences they have had since. Jenny Wilburn, a regular attendee at St. Clair Hospital’s breast cancer support group, was one of the first participants in the Western Pennsylvania CfR retreat seven years ago. “Some of the women had cancer many years ago and are still here, and that gives me hope that I will be a longtime survivor,” she says. “I’m lucky to call many of these women my friends.”

Dr. Judith Balk, center, with fellow fly fisherwomen.

Gerrie Delaney remembers that arriving at the retreat site made her a little apprehensive. “Going to a support group was a first for me,” she admits. About 70 percent of CfR participants have never been to a support group. But something happened when she was surrounded by nature, water and a nurturing environment: “I basically had a meltdown,” she says, laughing. “I wanted to pretend (the cancer) didn’t happen. But being in nature, and getting to know so many great women, the weekend helped me feel whole again.”

Chris Needles, a two-time breast cancer survivor and active marathon walker, took in the beautiful surroundings, the honest discussions and learning to cast—and loved it all. “It was fantastic,” she says. “It was a great opportunity for change, to change how you see life, and how you live.”

The women who attended the reunion remain grateful for their retreat experience. They all completed a survey before leaving the retreat and heading back to daily life, which for many still involves the “waiting” Balk referred to when she compared cancer to fly fishing. “The material and exercises were emotionally supportive, educational, and comforting,” wrote one woman. “The experience was very cathartic. But staff and my new sisterhood helped each other through it.”

“Cancer beats you up mentally and physically,” wrote another survivor. “This weekend helped me jump a hurdle I didn’t realize I was still dealing with daily. Cancer took my hope away, but this weekend gave it back. How do you say ‘thank you’ for that?”

For more information about Casting for Recovery, to apply for a retreat or to donate, go to www.castingforrecovery.org.