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Fly fishing retreats inspire breast cancer survivors

Leigh Ann Laube • Jan 2, 2010 at 12:00 AM

Nancy Puckett didn’t fully understand the connection between fly fishing and battling breast cancer until she spent a peaceful weekend casting a line in the Great Smoky Mountains as part of the Casting for Recovery program.

The White Pine, Tenn., resident came away from that weekend a changed woman.

“It’s a blessing to me because there’s nothing like it. It’s the closest thing to paradise I can describe on Earth. It absolutely changed my desire to help others, to tell others about the ladies I met, how many years some had been in remission, about the courage to get out there in the water and to use my arm,” Puckett said.

Casting for Recovery (CFR), founded in 1996, is a national non-profit support and educational program for breast cancer survivors. CFR offers free retreats tailored to promote and support mental and physical healing through shared experiences and the learning of new skills. At the end of 2008, CFR had had served 3,500 women in 269 retreats across the country.

During the two and a half day retreats, the sport of fly fishing is used to promote physical, emotional and spiritual healing. The program allows women to get away from their cancer, but provides gentle exercise through fly fishing as well as support from medical and psychosocial professionals.

Puckett was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2005. She was later diagnosed with lung cancer. She applied for Casting for Recovery, but wasn’t selected to participate that first year.

“So I just asked God to bless the person who was [selected] and that it would benefit them. The next year [in 2008], I put my name in again, and I was selected to go. I had an opportunity with Casting for Recovery to be with women who truly understood and continue to understand the battle that I’m fighting. The concept of the fly fishing entails many things. It builds your self-esteem, makes you active and use muscles and strength that I had forgotten I had,” she said.

“I had the privilege of having my own fly fisherman guide who was so kind and helpful. He never became upset because he had helped with Casting for Recovery many times. His name was Charlie. Casting for Recovery just changed my life. I love to fly fish. I do it in the winter. In November, I was out. I had myself geared up, layered up and was tossing that rod. I do it just for the peace and the therapy. To me, it’s an individual thing and it’s a talent or a gift or skill that can never be totally mastered. The more you do it, the better you get at it.”

Puckett said fly fishing serves as a weekly date that she can do with her husband.

Puckett suffers from lymphedema — a swelling caused by a blockage in the lymphatic system — in her left arm. Fly fishing taught her to use that arm again.

“It’s probably the most therapeutic activity that I have been able to do since I’ve been able to use my arm. The fly fishing helps me relax and not think about the fact that I had cancer,” she said.

Mary Johnson, from Shady Valley, Tenn., has been a fly fishing instructor in the Tri-Cities area for more than a decade, and she belongs to an all-women fly fishing chapter in the Smokies. She’ll serve as a leader for the Casting for Recovery retreat scheduled for April 2010 in Gatlinburg.

“It’s just such an incredible thing, and I have seen women who have just blossomed. The rest of their life has just spun out of control, and this one weekend they can be with other people who understand where they are in their life. They’re outside. They learn to tie flies. They’re on a fabulous private trout stream stocked with fish,” Johnson said.

Casting for Recovery relies on local volunteers and organizations to support its community-based retreats.

“The retreat leaders and staff raise all the money. All these women get to come on full scholarship,” Johnson said. “They get free lodging, meals and instruction. We get lots of donations, cash and door prizes. The community supports this program, and it’s absolutely heartwarming.”

It might seem an odd combination — teaching breast cancer survivors to fly fish — but to Johnson, it’s not only about providing a healing connection the natural world and relieving everyday stressors, but fly fishing techniques provide gentle exercise for joint and soft tissue mobility.

“The actual surgery that these women have had to go through, the motion of casting helps them stretch out those muscles,” Johnson said. “Because it’s an above-your-shoulder thing, your hand is up in the air. It doesn’t compromise the lymphedema aspect. So there are physical reasons, but there are also women instructors, so it makes the women more open to talk about what they’re going through. ... It gives them such hope. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.”

Though the focus of the weekend is on fly fishing, Casting for Recovery does make available to the women a psychotherapist, and a health-care professional, such as a physical therapist or nurse.

“It is all about fly fishing, but if someone wants to avail themselves of someone in those fields, they’re available for free,” Johnson said.

Participants learn the fundamentals of fly casting, entomology, knot-tying and equipment basics, but most importantly, they spend time on the water practicing catch-and-release fishing.

The Gatlinburg retreat is the closest retreat for women in the Tri-Cities. It will take place April 9-11 at the Lodge at Buckberry Creek. A second retreat will be held March 19-21 at Tumbling Creek Lodge in McEwen, Tenn. McEwen is located in Humphreys County, west of Nashville.

Tennessee retreats are for Tennessee residents, Johnson said, and the Gatlinburg retreat can accommodate 15 women. To be eligible to attend a retreat, you must be a breast cancer survivor at any stage. Participants for each of the scheduled 2010 retreats will be selected at random from all eligible applications received by Casting for Recovery by the retreat deadline. There is no cost to participants to attend, other than the expenses involved in traveling to and from the retreat location.

Although women can participate in a retreat only once, there are some reunion weekends being planned for past participants, Johnson said.

The Gatlinburg retreat will go on regardless of the weather, she said. “We’ve done this in the snow, and everybody loved it. Last year, we had a bear on the porches of the lodge. The year before it snowed. Nothing stops this,” she said.

During their special weekend, participants are treated like queens, Puckett said. “When you go in, you’ll find roses on your bed with mints, or someone knocks on your door with chocolate chip cookies. Prizes are given each day that are donated just for these women for that weekend. It’s like you are a celebrity,” she said.

Puckett caught a small native trout during her fishing adventure, and shared the joy with the others. “Regardless of who caught what size, it was like someone won a million dollars,” she recalled. “The unity among these ladies was just grand. Of course everybody wanted to catch the big one, but we were so excited with whoever caught whatever.”

The deadline to apply for the Gatlinburg retreat is Jan. 20, 2010. The deadline to apply for the McEwen retreat is Jan. 8, 2010. The only Virginia retreat will be May 19-21 in Orkney Springs. Application deadline is March 12, 2010.

For more information about the Vermont-based Casting for Recovery, or for an application, call (802) 362-9181 or visit www.castingforrecovery.org.

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