Casting for Recovery offers therapy through fly fishing for women with breast cancer

Nancy Vernon, of Evanston, shows the fish she caught while attending the 2018 Casting for Recovery retreat at the Absaroka Ranch. (COURTESY PHOTO)

EVANSTON — Women in Wyoming who have been diagnosed with breast cancer have an opportunity to participate in a program that not only offers education and peer support, but the chance to spend a weekend engaged in therapeutic fly fishing. Casting for Recovery (CfR) is a program founded in 1996 to offer free healing outdoor retreats for women with breast cancer, in any stage of treatment and recovery.

Since that time, national programs in multiple states have held more than 650 retreats, serving more than 8,500 women. 

Mary Turney, chair of the CfR Board of Trustees and Wyoming program coordinator, said the program was launched in Wyoming in 2011 and since that time 112 Wyoming women, ranging in age from 29 to 78, have had the opportunity to visit the Absaroka Ranch near Dubois for a weekend of healing, support, education, pampering and, of course, fly fishing. 

Although fly fishing and breast cancer may not seem connected, in actuality women who have undergone surgery or radiation as part of their treatment for breast cancer can benefit from the gentle motion involved with fly casting, which can act as physical therapy to increase mobility in the arm and upper body. An information sheet from CfR also touts the emotional benefits from connecting with nature while out fishing. 

Turney said the retreat is especially meaningful for most women in Wyoming and other rural states, where very few women attend breast cancer support groups, often because such groups may not exist in their hometowns. In fact, Turney said 90 percent of the women who have attended the retreat previously had never attended a support group. 

Staff at the retreat include oncology nurses and health care providers, psychosocial facilitators, a Wyoming Cancer Resource Center coordinator, three fly-fishing instructors and alumni volunteers. 

Some of those alumni volunteers include Uinta County women Nancy Vernon of Evanston and Angie Pitts of Mountain View. 

Vernon said she first applied to attend the retreat in 2017 after her 2016 diagnosis. However, only 14 women are randomly selected to attend each year so that first year she was an alternate. She did actually get a call that year when someone else was unable to go, but she too was unable to attend by that point. In 2018 she got the call and attended the retreat, which was so meaningful that she and her husband are both volunteering for this year’s retreat. 

Vernon said the support and connection with other women who have gone through the experience of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment is life changing. “We’re Wyoming women,” she said, “and we’re tougher than most.” 

Vernon continued, “We’ve had cancer, but we’ve still worked, raised kids and cared for our families. It’s hard for us to sit back and let others help us so much.” 

The retreat provided an opportunity for connection and pampering in a natural setting Vernon described as “absolutely gorgeous.” Vernon said each attendee has her own bed in a cabin shared with roommates, with all meals provided. Women participate in fly-fishing training sessions, along with a lot of special surprises.

“Every time we went back to the cabin there was another surprise waiting for us,” said Vernon. 

Pitts, who was diagnosed in late 2010, attended the retreat in 2011. Both Pitts and Turney shared the story of how she was selected to go.

“I was picked as an alternate and two days prior to the retreat I still wasn’t called to come,” said Pitts. 

“I was currently in treatment, radiation in Salt Lake City, but I called Mary and said, ‘I will be coming this year,’ and told her that as soon as she gets a cancellation, please call. So on Thursday, when retreat starts on Friday, around noon I got a call from Mary. I had put her number in my phone, and I answered, ‘I am coming!’ I rearranged my Friday radiation, called my husband and he said he would have my bags packed so all I would have to do was switch bags and head to Dubois.” 

Turney said this is a prime example of what has become a mantra of sorts for those who attend, “You’re in the year you’re meant to be in.” 

Pitts has volunteered since that first retreat, working with the hospitality team to provide pampering and gifts for the ladies who attend. “The ultimate task is to take care of the women, so they feel special and loved,” she said. 

Pitts too said the program has been life changing. “CfR starts to heal the holes that cancer has made. It is a place you can say the heavy things that are on your heart and the gal next to you can understand. We, as cancer survivors, don’t want to share those scary feelings with our friends, spouses and children because we don’t want to add to their worry. But here you can say those things and we have the personnel that can help you heal. CfR can help turn you from a cancer victim into a cancer survivor.” 

Pitts, Vernon and Turney all encouraged women in Wyoming to apply to attend this year’s retreat, which will be held from July 19-21 at the Absaroka Ranch, even if they have never been fishing.

“It isn’t always about the fish, although I promise you will want to catch one,” said Pitts. 

Turney also said the retreat isn’t necessarily about the fishing, although, “If you ask the participants, they always say the fishing is the best part.” 

Vernon said she was incredibly nervous when she attended. “I had no idea what to expect and I was so nervous,” she said. Ultimately, everyone was so nice, friendly and caring that she got comfortable quickly and formed long-lasting relationships with her fellow attendees. 

Pitts said the program is about the healing and support. “It doesn’t matter if you are currently in treatment or 20 years out, you each offer your wisdom, hope, love and friendship to each other. ... Cancer is here. We aren’t the cure for the disease, but we are the cure for the positive way to handle it.” 

Those interested in applying to attend this year’s retreat can do so at www.castingforrecovery.org, and additional information is available by calling 888-553-3500 or emailing [email protected] The deadline to apply is May 10, and names are randomly selected from all applications received. 

In addition to her encouragement for women with a breast cancer diagnosis to apply to attend, Pitts had some other words for all women in general. “I found my cancer because of a friend, who has passed, who said ‘check your boobies.’ My friends, check your boobies, please.”

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