“Your only role this weekend is to let us take care of you,” the volunteers reiterated as this year’s “West of the Continental Divide” Casting for Recovery participants gathered together at the Redstone Inn on Friday, Oct. 12, to kick off a weekend of fly fishing and rejuvenation.
As the 14 participants (chosen from a random drawing) trickled into the small, serene town of Redstone — some came from Montrose, others from Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs — they were fit for waders and introduced to each other, as well as the eight program volunteers, some of whom were fly fishing outfitters and others medical and psychosocial professionals. The room quickly filled with laughter, warm greetings and the sharing of stories and backgrounds — all of which seemed to come easy to this group of women who share in the similar experience of survivorship.
Founded in 1996 by a breast reconstruction surgeon and a professional fly fisher, Casting for Recovery is a national nonprofit organization that spearheads healing outdoor retreats for women “of any age and at any stage” of breast cancer, whether that means they’re in treatment, recovery or a long-term survivor.
“If we need to plop a chair in the middle of the river so that someone can fish, that’s what we’re going to do,” said Ashley Smith, Trainee Retreat Leader of this year’s Western Slope weekend event.
Inspiration to start the “quality of life” program grew from the discovery that the gentle motion of fly casting doubles as a beneficial physical therapy practice for increasing mobility in the arm and upper body of women who’ve had surgery or radiation as part of their breast cancer treatment. Free of charge to all participants, the retreats include tutorials on fly fishing (everything from casting and fly rods to bug talks and how to tie knots), a four-hour one-on-one session with volunteer professional fly fishing guides, group meals and a closed session that opens up the opportunity for participants to individually talk with trained oncology professionals.
Michelle Miscione has participated as a volunteer for the past three years and has worked in the field of oncology social work for 17 years. She explains that a majority of women who attend this event “have a lot of hats that they wear in life,” so for them, this weekend provides a moment to sit back, take a breath and be taken care of.
“And that’s what I’m here to do, to extend the olive branch so they know support is here for them if they want or need it,” she continues. “But at the same time, we don’t want to push an agenda that they may only want to talk about their cancer. Often times, they have a whole lot to talk about.”
Caring for caretakers
One of this year’s program participants, an infusion nurse at Valley View Hospital’s Cancer Center, has been in remission for five and half years now. This weekend means a lot to her because it’s an opportunity for her to take time for herself, since she spends most of her days taking care of others.
Seventy percent of the women who attend these retreats have never been to any kind of cancer support group, according to Casting for Recovery.
When asked why this statistic is so high, Smith, a breast cancer survivor herself, pins one of the reasons on limited access to support groups.
The other possible reason, she explains, is “… you go through and do your treatment and you don’t think you need it. Or you’re just so tired that you don’t reach out. So for a lot of women this may be the first time they’ve ever come together with other survivors.”
Marlene Collins, the organization’s Western Slope Program Coordinator, explains that there is no shortage of breast cancer survivors in this area of the state, and that’s why she started the program here. “I’ve been coming to this area for over 20 years and what better place to go fishing,” says Collins, who is a nine-year breast cancer survivor and former participant in the program’s “East of the Continental Divide” event. This is her eighth year volunteering with Casting for Recovery.
As a program coordinator, Collins is responsible for raising $15,000 per year to finance the retreat. She goes about this by coordinating fundraisers, grants and an online nationwide auction, and reaching out to the community for tips. Last year, the Western Slope program received a grant that allowed them to buy their own rods and reels. Basalt’s Taylor Creek Fly Shop lends waders and boots for the weekend as well. There are so many great people in the valley who are willing to give back and help out the program, according to Collins.
“When you get that cancer diagnosis, you’re in the woods. ” she continues. “But when you’re in the woods with a rod in your hand and a reel, that cancer gets locked in a case in the back of your mind and there’s no room for it to come into what you’re doing. You’re matching wits with a trout and you’ve got to figure out the cast and what they’re biting on. It’s a wonderful way to give your mind a break from everything that’s been going on.”
“It’s really not about breast cancer and survivorship,” she says. “It’s more about learning how to fly fish and taking a break… just being outside and standing in the river is therapeutic itself. It just kind of gets you back to what matters and slows everything down.”