Casting for Recovery

The Casting for Recovery group at Mount Falcon. Source:Irish Independent

The Casting for Recovery group at Mount Falcon. Source:Irish Independent

I have read about Casting for Recovery, fly-fishing retreats for women who’ve been through breast cancer before, so am delighted to learn that last month they had their first retreat in the Republic of Ireland. In today’s Irish Independent newspaper, you can read a feature article about the organisation and the recent retreat held at Mount Falcon in Ballina, Co Mayo.

This unusual idea was the brainchild of an American fishing enthusiast, who set up the foundation in the 1990s. When Sue Hunter, an Englishwoman who was a keen fly-fisher and a breast cancer survivor herself, heard about the organisation, she decided to set up a UK and Irish branch.

After a couple of years of recruiting volunteers from the fly-fishing community and raising money through donations and funding from the Countryside Alliance, the first retreat took place in 2005.

Four years on, Casting for Recovery runs several retreats a year at fishing spots across the British Isles, all paid for through charitable funding. Last month’s visit to Ballina was the first break in the Republic of Ireland.

But why is fly-fishing, of all things, a good activity for cancer survivors?

There are two reasons, explains Sue Hunter. Firstly, the therapeutic benefits of being outside, on or near the water and immersed in the natural world, are tremendously healing for cancer patients. In fact, so convinced are fly-fishing enthusiasts of the sport’s healing properties that it’s now used as therapy for Iraq war veterans in the US.

Secondly, fly-fishing offers a gentle form of exercise which women who’ve had breast surgery, which often involves having lymph nodes removed from under the arm, can easily take part in. The lightness of the equipment involved means that even with limited upper-body strength, the women are able to cast a fly.

In fact, the motion involved in casting mimics one of the most popular exercises doctors recommend for rebuilding arm strength and avoiding lymphoedema — a painful side-effect of breast cancer in which the arm swells up due to complications in the lymphatic system after surgery.

But perhaps most importantly, the retreats offer the women a few days away from their responsibilities at home and the chance to learn a new skill while being at ease in the company of other women who know exactly what it’s like to get that dreaded diagnosis.

For Sue herself, fly-fishing quite simply turned her life around. Having developed breast cancer in 1993, it recurred six years later in the second breast.

Shortly after the recurrence, a friend persuaded her to come fishing with him.

“I was reluctant to go at first, but being out on the water is like a natural tranquilliser.”

A decade on, Sue, now 55, is the captain of the England ladies’ fly-fishing team and spends every spare minute on the water.

“You are so immersed in what you are doing when you are fishing and so focused, that you forget everything else. It’s wonderful.”

Those sentiments are echoed by the Ballina participants.

For Julia Simpson (39), from Adrahan, Co Galway, it was the first time she’d been fishing, but definitely not, she says, her last.

Julia — a mum with two small children — was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2008 and had a mastectomy and a breast reconstruction. Physically and mentally, the road to recovery has been long and painful.

“The mental side of things was one of the hardest things I had to deal with; having to adjust to the idea that you’re not indestructible,” she says.

“Before this happened, I felt in control of my life; I was the one who made all the plans and looked after the family. But then you get cancer and you realise that everything is so fragile. I lost my confidence and I haven’t regained it yet.

“My social life is zero and I still haven’t gone back to work. Now, I’m very uncomfortable being around groups of people. I always feel that people are whispering and pointing, and I don’t feel as strong as I was before.

“I don’t feel confident with my body since my breast reconstruction. There are certain clothes that I can’t wear because it can be kind of obvious. I’ve changed the way I dress, to the point where I feel as though I am hiding my body under my clothes.”

Taking exercise after surgery also proved difficult. “I used to do a lot of yoga, but now that’s very difficult because I have no upper-body strength since the muscles were moved around for the breast reconstruction,” says Julia.

“I can’t run around after the kids either because the implant moves around. It took me a long time even to get back driving.”

But the fishing retreat was a whole different story.

“Going to Casting for Recovery, I felt confident for the first time. I knew that all the others had been where I had been, so there would be no whispering or pointing.”

Being out on the lake was wonderful relaxation, says Julia.

“It was very peaceful. The set-up at Mount Falcon was just fantastic; the grounds are gorgeous and everything was just perfect. There was a lovely atmosphere.

“Physically, there was very little effort involved but it was just peaceful to be out there on the lake and to be able to think.”

For 51-year-old Margaret Kelly, from Newbridge, Co Kildare, the fishing retreat was the start of a whole new hobby.

“Now I have the rod, the reels, the lines, I’m totally hooked! I’m telling everyone we have to go fishing. The instant you start casting, you empty your mind of everything. You don’t think of anything else, not cancer, work, family or the plumbing problem I’d had in the house that week — there was just total peace. From the moment I arrived at Mount Falcon, the whole experience was mindblowing.”

Margaret really needed the break. After receiving her cancer diagnosis two years ago, she’s been through surgery, radiotherapy and a course of hormone medication which she had to stop because she reacted so badly to it. Now she has regular screenings to make sure the cancer has not returned but the shock of the diagnosis remains fresh in her mind.

“Even the word cancer sends shivers down your spine. You just go into shock when the doctor says the word and then whenever someone mentions it, you relive that moment over and over again.

“But on the retreat, there was one woman who mentioned that it had been 20 years since she had had cancer and at that moment, I could feel my shoulders relax. You think, OK, this isn’t a death sentence and it isn’t necessarily going to come back. I suppose I hadn’t realised just how heavily that had been weighing on me.”

Maura Corcoran, who lives nearby at Knockmore, near Pontoon, Co Mayo, was at Mount Falcon for a much-needed break after a difficult three years.

Maura was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2006. Despite her breast lump being “very small”, as she describes it, she had to go through a gruelling course of chemotherapy.

“It was horrendous — I was in hospital most of the time. I was nauseous, I couldn’t eat — I couldn’t even hold down water.”

After the chemo came daily trips to Galway for radiotherapy, and then the hormone medication to keep the disease under control.

“It’s very draining. When the treatments finished I slept for a whole month.”

With two children at college, a daughter still at secondary school and a husband at work, Maura found it hard to get a chance to take a breather. So the fishing trip, which she heard about through a local cancer support group, was an ideal opportunity to get away from it all.

“I never fished before in my life. I was a girl-guide leader years ago and did archery and climbing, but I had never fished before.

“It was an amazing experience. The way the retreat was run was excellent and the atmosphere was so relaxed and easy-going.”

“The trip really boosted my confidence,” agrees Julia. “I felt like I’d achieved something and learned something new; I met up with other people who’d had similar experiences and I’d learned about my cancer and about cancer itself.

“The only way I think you learn about moving on from the disease is to talk to people who have been through it.”

Talking is a big part of the retreats. The fishing lessons are broken up by group counselling sessions and one-to-one sessions with the team of nine volunteers who are on hand to answer any questions the ladies might have about their illness.

One of these volunteers is Gloria Shingler, a retired breast cancer nurse who is an expert in lymphoedema.

She is always available to talk to the women on the retreat and teaches them the importance of caring for any cuts to their hands or arms to reduce the risk of lymphoedema. But she’s also there to answer questions.

“It’s very important to give the women permission to ask questions,” says Gloria. “I am usually there in a sitting room and if they want to come for a one-to-one session, I’m available. One day I even counselled someone while in the swimming pool.

“There’s a spiritual side to the retreats as well. We are very open in the group sessions and we talk about everything. It gives the women space to talk to people in similar situations.”

The talking and the fishing and the fun in the bar in the evenings gives the ladies a very real sense of perspective on their illness.

“When they leave, they’re over the moon,” says Gloria. “They’ve gained in confidence and made a lot of friendships. If they are uncertain about any aspect of their illness, they gain empowerment through knowledge.

“And the camaraderie of knowing that others are there in the same situation is so important. People leave saying they’ve had the best experience of their lives.”

Source: Irish Independent 29/6/09