Casting for Recovery: Ensuring Breast Cancer Survivors Needn’t Wade AloneDec 27, 2022 09:58AM ● By Mike Whye
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
Last September, Michelle Agonor of Omaha stood in fishing waders in a Ponca State Park pond waving a lightweight fishing rod back and forth. More line played out every time she swept the rod forward, a motion that was also exercising her upper-body muscles.
Nearby, 15 other women were doing the same, guided by volunteer fly-fishing experts. The women, all survivors of breast cancer, were learning more than back casts and fly rigging—they were forming bonds over their shared yet nuanced experiences. Originally founded in Manchester, Vermont, in 1996, Casting for Recovery offers free fly-fishing excursions to rebuild and strengthen muscles affected by radiation and surgery during and after breast cancer treatment. To date, about 11,000 women have participated in CFR’s retreats across the nation, including 250 in Nebraska.
“The more important part of the retreat was getting together with people like me,” said Agonor, 63, who works at Union Pacific. “Everybody there involved had had cancer—had been going through it, coming out of it, or starting it. We all had a commonality,” she said.
At 32, Tasha Bang was the youngest survivor in attendance.
“It was amazing to meet 15 other women going through the same thing I’ve gone through, yet our stories were different,” reflected Bang, a perinatology nurse at Methodist Women’s Hospital who completed her treatments last May. “We could all relate to what each other went through.”
“We had the same kind of emotions and thoughts,” Bang said. “Some had been cancer-free for years and they were like, ‘Hey, you’ll get through this.’”
Bang said the casting motions left her a bit sore, not altogetherbad news.
“It was a good sore,” she qualified.
According to Faye Nelson, CFR’s national director, the motions required in fly-fishing prove effective physical therapy for those who’ve ungergone surgery, whether a mastectomy, a lymph node removal, or the removal of a breast. She explained that CFR holds more than 40 retreats a year in 39 states, with participants selected randomly from applications submitted from across the nation to attend the free retreats. Those chosen must attend a retreat in their home state—but if their state has no retreat, they can attend one in a neighboring locality.
Omahan Linda Lovgren, head of CFR’s Nebraska chapter, described how each retreat is attended by a physician’s assistant and a psychosocial worker experienced with oncology. They conduct sessions with the women to talk about managing the side effects and what to expect during and after treatment. Questions collected in a box are discussed in a group setting.
“The women learn from each other, as well as the experts,” said Lovgren, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. An angler herself, she read about CFR in a fishing magazine and looked into hosting a retreat in Nebraska, which came to fruition in 2011 and has been held annually since (except during the pandemic).
“One thing we know is that 80% of women diagnosed with cancer don’t go to any kind of support group, so to be in a setting like this, you can feel safe asking anything and know that others in the group are going through the same thing,” Lovgren said. “This creates an environment for amazing bonding and friendships.”
She said many organizations and donors contribute to the retreats in Nebraska and other states. These include Cabela’s/Bass Pro Shops, Werner Foundation, Omaha Beady Bunch, Donna and Ed Robinson, and at least 50 other entities.
Shirley Kelsay, of Falls City, Nebraska, underwent treatment in May 2019 and formed a small support group to talk about cancer. Attending the Ponca retreat expanded that circle. It also taught her, already a skilled angler, a new form of casting.
“It was a little different, a little trickier,” she said.
The retreat was also different in that it was a catch-and-release event, something Kelsay, 62, is unaccustomed to, as she likes to catch fish to dress and eat.
Another rule was anyone who caught a fish had to kiss it before returning it to the water. Bang thought one she caught was slimy, so she just ran a finger across it.
“I was totally being a girl, just grossed out,” she laughed, adding that she got hooked on fly-fishing in spite of herself.
Nationally, up to 60% of CFR participants continue fly-fishing after the retreat. More importantly, about 96% are inspired to do more activities outdoors. Beyond communing with nature, the retreats have other lasting effects: women feeling their voices were heard, and forming lifelong bonds with other survivors.
Agonor—who doesn’t plan to fly-fish again but looks forward to more outdoor activity—said of the retreat: “I’ve never met a more willing group of women who really were about helping people navigate future processes of healing.”