Fly-Casting Therapy

Fly-Casting Therapy

Casting for Recovery has healed bodies and minds.

  • By: Phil Monahan
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In 1996, Dr. Benita Walton—a breast surgeon at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, as well as a fly fisher—realized that the range of motion involved in fly-casting was much like the exercises she prescribed to her patients. Casting stretches and strengthens muscles, joints and soft tissue that may have been weakened by radiation or surgery. Doctor Walton knew that these physical benefits, combined with the kind of respite from “real life” that time on the water provides, could help breast cancer patients and survivors begin to heal.

In the winter of 1996, Doctor Walton teamed up with Gwen Perkins (at the time the director of the Orvis Women’s Program) to host a meeting of female anglers, medical professionals and counselors for the purpose of developing a curriculum for a series of fly-fishing retreats. The result was Casting for Recovery (CFR), an organization that hosted its first two retreats that year.

Since then, the Manchester, Vermont-based nonprofit has held more than 300 retreats (41 in 2009 alone) in 26 states, serving more than 3,500 women. CFR continues to build organizational infrastructure across the country, with the goal of offering retreats in all 50 states; there are now affiliates in Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland and New Zealand.

Body and Mind
According to Kate Fox, CFR Director of communications and development, these retreats aren’t really about fly-fishing; they’re about the whole experience—women making connections with other patients and survivors, receiving medical and psychological counseling and simply escaping the stresses of their daily lives. “We call what we do human conservation,” Fox says.

The women who attend—there’s no cost—are at many different stages of the disease or recovery, range widely in age and come from different backgrounds. Each retreat is staffed by at least one medical professional, one psychological counselor and four fly-fishing instructors trained specifically for the CFR program. Everyone who works at these events is a volunteer, part of an army of 1,500 people who donate their time to make CFR events across the country possible.

Each 21/2-day retreat hosts 14 women, and attendees receive formal instruction in fly-casting, entomology, knot tying, catch-and-release ethics and environmental issues. Group sessions are scheduled with medical and recovery experts, and sessions in which women discuss their own fears, concerns or uplifting stories. It’s not all structured therapy; there’s also plenty of singing, games and laughter. On the last day, they get to experience a guided half-day of fishing to put the newfound angling skills to the use.

According to a CFR survey, more than one-third of attendees continue fly-fishing after attending a retreat, and almost half say they’d go if given an opportunity. An astonishing 100 percent of attendees say they’d recommend the program to someone else, and 90 percent say that they felt better able to cope with their disease and are more aware and accepting of themselves after the retreat.

The organization also benefits from what Fox calls a “ripple effect”: many alumnae give something back by volunteering or donating money. There are also several annual alumnae events that build on the relationships fostered at the retreats and allow women to make even more connections.

Building on Success
As proud as CFR’s leaders of the great strides the organization has made over the last decade, Fox acknowledges, they are aware that they receive three applications for every available spot in one of the retreats. (Spots are awarded via a blind lottery system.) “Five hundred and forty women a day are diagnosed with breast cancer,” Fox says, explaining why the organization is committed to growing to meet the demand. They are also committed to keeping the retreats free.

“Most women are caregivers,” she argues,” and caregivers are notoriously bad at taking care of themselves. For example, fifty to sixty percent of the women who come to CFR retreats are not in any kind of support group. We wanted to remove all obstacles to attendance, to ensure that anyone who wanted to attend could attend.”

Although CFR receives tremendous support from companies such as The Hartford, Under Armour, and Orvis, 70 percent of its funds come from individual donations. And because it relies on volunteers, CFR can apply 81 cents out of every dollar directly to the retreats. If you can donate time or money, or if you know a breast-cancer patient or survivor who could benefit from attending a retreat, you’ll find all the information you need on the organization’s Web site, castingforrecovery.org. ?

Philip Monahan is a writer and editor who lives in Southern Vermont.