Casting away cancer's pain


STOWE, Vt. - Twelve women, each with a piece of green yarn draped around her neck like a string of pearls. Each with a diploma in hand. Each with tears in her eyes.

It's time for the women with cancer to go home, taking with them lessons learned about friendship - and about fly-fishing.

"Do we have to go?" asks Joanie Bennett of no one in particular.

These women are the latest graduates of Casting for Recovery, a weekend retreat for breast cancer survivors that combines fly-fishing instruction with medical, psychological and social support. The rhythmic, repetitive motion of casting a fly line is a balm for the senses and a benefit to muscles and tissue devastated by surgery.

Since the first class of 12 in 1996, the program has graduated nearly 400 women in nine states. Next year, organizers hope to add retreats in Maryland and Northern Virginia.

Casting for Recovery is all about hope. Participants hope to catch a fish. They hope tomorrow will be a better day.

Joan Toll already has a plan for a better tomorrow, and it involves fly-fishing. "I get my first Social Security check next month. I guess I know what I'll use it for," she says with a big smile. "Gear."

Toll and the others finger the yarn, gently tied by psychotherapist Nancy Polseno.

"You are forever connected to us," Polseno tells them. "We are forever connected to you."

Casting for Recovery is a nonprofit organization, with an annual operating budget of $200,000.

"That doesn't mean we have $200,000. That means we're hoping to raise that," says Seline Skoug, the executive director, who works out of her home in a Boston suburb to cut expenses.

Grants from organizations, such as Race for the Cure, and local fund raising allow everyone to attend for free. Last year, the governor of Vermont included Casting for Recovery in a $130,000 allocation for a dozen state cancer groups.

Skoug fields the phone calls from women - and from husbands and fathers calling on behalf of their wives and daughters - all pleading for one of the limited number of retreat openings. She says she took 70 calls from 23 states in the past two months.

"Clearly, the demand outstrips our resources in a big way," Skoug says.

Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer found among U.S. women, and more than 2 million survivors are living in the United States, according to the National Alliance for Breast Cancer Organizations. Currently, more than half of all breast cancers are discovered at an early stage, before spreading. The five-year survival rate after early-stage treatment is 96 percent.

The program was founded by Gwenn Perkins of Manchester, not a breast cancer survivor but an avid fly-fisherman. She noticed that a doctor was recommending breast cancer patients to take up fly-fishing. The casting motion is similar to exercises used in therapy after surgery.

Skoug will be in Maryland this fall, scouting for retreat locations and sponsors, medical and financial. The program already has trained one breast cancer survivor from Northern Virginia as an instructor.

"We try to find openings, sending an Ohio woman to an Alaska group. But the best scenario is that they stay in their own area to be with women close to home," she says.

Casting for Recovery also relies on donations, such as the one from the owner of the Commodores Inn, the site of this retreat. The owner, who lost his wife to cancer two years ago, has picked up part of the cost of lodging and meals for the 19 retreat participants, who include instructors and medical staff.

Names and faces

The women check in Friday night. They have come from all over Vermont, many from rural areas where cancer isn't discussed openly. Over wine and cheese, they get to know each other.

Toll explains she was ready to attend two years ago, but had to have a cancerous kidney removed. Maryanne McDonough, a nurse, has had cancer three times.

Liz Cronin is a scrappy physical education teacher whose auburn hair was straight until cancer treatment unexpectedly gave her curls. She confides that she learned she had been stricken on April 1 last year ("April Fool's, it was a pretty bad joke.").

Karon Given is, at 36, the youngest participant. Diagnosed in December during her first mammogram, she faces six more weeks of chemotherapy, then radiation and then hormone therapy.

"I live to fish," she tells the group, her eyes dancing brightly beneath the baseball cap that covers her baldness. "I have three rods in the car," gifts from her family to encourage her new hobby.

Untangling lines, lives

On Saturday morning, the women begin an itinerary that recognizes how fragile health can override even a burning desire to become an angler.

"This is not a fly-fishing club," says program director Susan Balch during breakfast. She tells them they can learn the knots, practice the casts and learn about the types of flies if they want to. Or not.

The inn has grounds to walk, chairs inside and out for lounging and the shops of Stowe just down the road. The guidelines: Nap when you have to, play when you can.

"This is your weekend," Balch says. Twenty minutes later, all 12 women are standing at the inn's pond for a casting class.

After some good-natured bantering, everyone is soon deep in the rhythm of casting.

"You've done this before," Balch says, teasing the angler with the best form.

"In my dreams," replies Irina Assur, a nurse who lives on one of the best little stretches of trout water in Central Vermont, but never fly-fished it.

When the jokes turn to the movie, "A River Runs Through It," McDonough offers her suggestion to make the day perfect.

"It would have been nice if they had invited Robert Redford," she says to appreciative laughter.

For the moment, the women aren't cancer survivors. They are girls at summer camp.

Search for answers

After another round of fishing lessons in the afternoon followed by dinner, they drift down the hallway to a first-floor room designated for a fireside chat. There is no fireplace, but it's the chat that matters.

Meanwhile, the fishing instructors make themselves scarce. "We don't have breast cancer," Robyn Gain says. "We're the outsiders."

Polseno, the psychotherapist, is there to help the women talk about life and death. She urges them to take their time talking and listening.

What do they worry about? The answers come slowly at first, and then no one can dam up her feelings.

Given feels guilty that the loss of her income is depriving her young children of toys. She wonders how much to tell her son and daughter about the cancer, the surgery, her uncertain prognosis. She and others worry how their families will hold together if they die.

Theora Ward, angry that her body has been scarred, confesses she feared the amputation of her breast more than the disease that caused it.

Will their husbands still find them desirable? Are they being babies? Why are old friends abandoning them? How can they ever again trust bodies that have betrayed them, sometimes more than once? Can't anyone in their lives talk about anything but cancer? Will their daughters follow in their ailing footsteps?

They cry for themselves and each other.

Polseno ends the chat before anyone gets too tired, but the women want to talk on, in clusters and one-on-one.

Isolated feeling

Cronin, 39, talks about feeling isolated after her diagnosis. Her brothers shied away from her, frightened by the memory of their parents' early deaths. Her dazed middle school students wondered how their teacher, who could do almost anything athletic, could get so sick.

She seized control of her life again by concentrating on her favorite activity: ice hockey. A fan of Bobby Orr, she willed herself back on the ice last winter, still weak from treatment, and ended up her team's high scorer for the season.

Her fists clench and her eyes burn like fire as she finishes her story.

Later, Polseno reflects on the evening. "Coming to terms with any loss in your life is difficult, but it's an opportunity to redefine yourself. It allows you to say, 'Yes, I'm fragile. I've had parts of my body removed. I've been filled with poisons, but I've learned a lot about myself and the world.'

"I wish they could come to it easier," Polseno says, "but I'm not sure it happens that way."

Casting stones

Sunday morning is gray and damp. Mist is rising from the pond where the day before they learned to cast.

The women gather quietly at its edge, this time without their rods and reels for an ecumenical service.

They have come to reflect, to pray, to gather their thoughts.

Suddenly, a fish leaps in a graceful arc over the pond and plops back in.

"That's it, I'm out of here," jokes Balch, the hard-core angler who approaches fishing as a religion. "I have another service to go to."

The service is a mixture of song and poetry and ends in a prayer:

"I ache for sunlight. For health to jump from rock to rock. To walk without having to sit down and rest, as has been the case for several months now. ... What do I want? I want time to pass. I want to heal ... and my body to forget its scars and the deep gnawing night pain. ... Let me have the green and blue a little while longer. Hold my hand."

Each woman takes a small stone from Polseno. Some angrily heave it into the pond. Some toss it, as if to cast their troubles away. Others go off by themselves to throw the rock and then watch the circles grow and finally disappear.

On the river

The solemnity and the mist have lifted. The women are, once more, little girls at summer camp, giggling at the garb they are about to wear.

Waders, oversized and Army-green, look like something Bozo the Clown might don if he got drafted. Felt-bottomed wading shoes are intended to keep them upright in the rock-bottomed river. A vest has pockets filled with doodads to help them catch fish.

No one is talking about cancer now as the women model their new look and snap group pictures.

Finally, they're ready to meet the Little River. The bank is steep in spots, but the stronger help the weaker. Soon, each one is putting together her rod and reel.

There's another streamside demonstration to refresh casting techniques. Then, the new anglers disperse up and downstream, trying to find a "lucky spot" where a trout will surrender to them.

Polseno, the therapist, sets up shop on a nearby sandbar. Her shingle is out. Women drift by to continue earlier conversations.

"I don't live my life in years anymore," says Doris Meilleur, who has had cancer four times in her 44 years. "I live my life in joys."

What makes her happy?

"My family, my husband of 26 years who accepts me unconditionally," she says. "A lot of times it isn't the big things. On a cold night, it's having a fire and someone to share it with. A book. Making homemade soup."

Meilleur goes hookless. She wants the casting experience, but not the fish part.

Toll ends up with a hookless experience, too, but only because a fish has swiped her fly and she doesn't know it.

Cronin has two strikes. "The first one I saw. I was in shock. The second one, I thought I saw a brown head."

"We got her. She's hooked," says Katya Bowen, Cronin's delighted instructor.

Along the bank, there's shouting. Women come running toward a frantic figure wrestling with a taut line. There's a splash. A scoop of the net. The clicking of shutters. Whoops of joy.

Joanie Bennett's caught a fish.

To contact Casting for Recovery, phone 888-553-3500 or e-mail

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