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Casting For Recovery provides a 'chalice for healing' for those battling breast cancer

A year ago, Lorenita Lucas clung to life. Her cancer, in Stage IV, had spread from her breast to her liver and bones. Chemotherapy kept her going — that, and the anticipation of a fishing trip she would take in September.

Lucas, 50, attended that weekend retreat for breast cancer survivors in Sharpsburg. Three months later, during a check-up, doctors found no sign of the disease. The reason?

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"Medication and a lot of prayer," said Lucas, adding wryly, "or maybe it's because I caught a fish."

Casting For Recovery makes no claims to heal. Yet women who've participated in the national non-profit program, which brings breast cancer survivors together for a junket of fly fishing and fellowship, say it buoys their spirits to hook a rainbow trout in a stress-free setting with others who are in the same boat.

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The exercise helps too. Fly fishing has "tremendous therapeutic properties for these women," said Carol Stevenson, a founder of Casting For Recovery's two annual mid-Atlantic retreats. The first, at Graves Mountain Lodge in Syria, Va., takes place May 13-15; the other, at Shepherd's Spring in Sharpsburg (Washington Co.), is in September.

A breast cancer survivor herself, Stevenson, 67, of Monkton, said casting a fly rod "mimics a lot of the exercises these women are asked to do to get their energy back after treatment. Casting isn't a strenuous activity but one that restores movement, facilitates range of motion, builds strength — and brings some enthusiasm to their lives."

Lucas, who lives in Washington, D.C., called the experience "exhilarating" and said she has kept tabs on several women she met last year.

"I'm not the outdoorsy type — give me a hotel any day over a cabin in the woods — but that weekend was amazing," said Lucas, a wellness presenter and yoga instructor. "Cancer is not good at all but you can't just sit around and say, 'Woe is me.' I've had my share of those moments during this journey, but you try to temper that with the idea of doing something different — and this was one fabulous trip. At night we sat around a campfire, shared our stories and ate s'mores.

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"That I caught a fish was icing on the cake. I held it in my hands; it was slimy but a beauty. It would have tasted delicious but, alas, I had to throw it back. I'd go again if I could. Some things you don't realize are on your bucket list until you check them out."

Founded in 1996 in Manchester, Vt., Casting For Recovery holds 45 retreats in 41 states, plus Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, and serves nearly 600 women a year. Retreats are limited to 14 participants, chosen by a random selection lottery.

"We turn away two women for every one we take," said Whitney Milhoan, CFR's executive director. "Fly fishing is a chalice for healing. We've changed peoples' lives. For many, this is the first time they've done anything for themselves since being diagnosed. These women learn that cancer doesn't define them, that there's more to life than the daily grind that they are juggling, from treatments to raising kids to working jobs.

"Regardless of their diagnosis, they can still feel that rush of adrenalin and do something outside the box that they'd never have had the courage to try. That's enough to keep many, who are in the late stages of cancer, going for a long time."

Retreats are open to women at any stage of breast cancer, with a doctor's permission. In the future, Milhoan said, CFR hopes to hold retreats for men battling the same disease.

Attendees run the gamut, Stevenson said:

"We've had mothers and daughters, and women from 18 to 82. Some have been in remission for years, and it's good for others to see them coping and even thriving."

On arrival, women are given rods, reels, boots and waders. They attend instructional workshops on how to cast and tie fishing knots. Finally, they head out to a nearby pond or creek, some with walkers or in wheelchairs, to strut their stuff, each with her personal guide.

Most waters are stocked to ensure success. Every catch is a seminal experience, Stevenson said.

"I remember one woman named Lucy who had all kinds of [cancer] problems and was all bummed out," Stevenson recalled. "All of a sudden she started to shriek. She'd hooked a fish and had taken off running down the road, laughing, in her boots and waders, with rod in hand and the poor fish sailing in the air. I don't know where she thought she was going, but we finally caught her and released the fish."

Lucy went home happy.

Last year, Jeanette Madison caught two trout while attending the Virginia retreat. But it was the camaraderie and conversation that made her weekend.

"We all bared ourselves, telling what we'd been through," said Madison, 67, of Bryans Road (Charles Co.). She'd undergone chemotherapy, radiation and a lumpectomy in 2005 and is now cancer-free.

"I liked the fact that other women were telling my story," she said. "It was nice to hear them affirm the feelings that I had, too. I'd recommend [the retreat] for anyone curled up in a fetal tuck from their cancer because just to be around women who've come through it is so encouraging.

"People think cancer is an automatic death sentence. It's not."

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