Fourteen Wyoming women in various stages of treatment for breast cancer spent a July weekend learning a new sport and taking steps toward recovery.
Casting for Recovery, a volunteer-run program that operates in 46 states, hosted the women on a free fly-fishing retreat at the Absaroka Ranch near Dubois. During the weekend event, participants learned the ins and outs of the sport from professional guides while also learning about medical advances and talking through the mental and emotional side of their disease experiences.
For Laramie resident Marlene Fleming, the weekend was a once-in-lifetime event.
“It was all-encompassing,” she said. “There was a lot of love there and support for each other.”
Fleming is a 22-year survivor of breast cancer who discovered she had the disease during a routine mammogram years ago.
“My daughter was just turning 8, so I was really terrified,” she said.
She underwent surgery before learning the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, at which point doctors in Utah recommended a bone marrow transplant. Her prognosis was not good.
“I stayed there for a week doing high-dose chemotherapy,” she said. “That was pretty scary.”
After leaving the hospital, she underwent radiation treatment and reconstructive surgery, but the transplant was a success and she started getting better.
“I had friends and family that supported me and were really important for the healing process,” Fleming said.
She said the healing continued during the Casting for Recovery retreat, even though she finished her treatment a couple decades ago.
“I think it would assist anybody at any age,” she said. “We were all in the same club. It was inspirational for me.”
Mary Turney, program coordinator for Wyoming Casting for Recovery and chair of the national board, said any woman with a diagnosis of breast cancer is eligible for the once-a-year retreats. Those without a program in their state can apply to a neighboring state’s program. Participants can be any age and at any stage of treatment, with selection conducted by a random drawing.
The benefits of the program for those with breast cancer are many, Turney said. The program was founded in 1996 in Vermont by a reconstructive surgeon who was also a professional angler. The surgeon noticed that the motion of fishing could be a tool for physical therapy.
“She realized that when she was casting, it was very similar to the exercises she prescribed to her patients,” Turney said.
In addition to physical benefits from the movement, fly fishing also takes anglers into nature and near water.
“Coming to Casting for Recovery gives women a chance to reconnect to the outdoors,” Turney said.
Plus, they have the chance to learn a new skill and have fun in the company of others undergoing similar experiences. In rural Wyoming, only 10 percent of Wyoming participants have gone to cancer support groups.
“They’re able to talk and share with other women that have been through that same diagnosis,” she said.
Andi Berry is a Laramie therapist who has volunteered at the Wyoming retreats since the first one in 2011. She described cancer as an existential crisis that upends a person’s sense of self, robs her of her normal life, strains finances, changes relationships and drapes uncertainty over everything.
Wyoming women are very good at coping in a crisis and pushing forward, but sometimes that means traumatic experiences become “encapsulated,” Berry said. The anxiety, depression and fear brought about by cancer might emerge later, unexpectedly.
“Something like Casting for Recovery puts women together who haven’t had that opportunity to share this,” she said. “They’ve all gone through some version of the same thing.”
Berry said catch-and-release fishing can be a useful metaphor for learning to let go of experiences instead of holding on.
“You meet these beautiful creatures that we worked so hard to catch, but they’re not ours forever,” she said. “We let them go.”
She encouraged women to consider the program even if they don’t consider themselves outdoorsy types.
“It’s so much bigger and broader than that,” Berry said.
Fleming, who caught fish on both days of the retreat, said she found herself relaxing into the meditative nature of fly fishing while finding people who had shared her experiences.
“When you’re surrounded by a support group, it’s so much easier,” she said.