How fly fishing helped me heal after breast cancer
At 43, I was having debilitating hot flashes every five minutes, so I was prescribed Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT).
I blew past the fine print which said that some forms of HRT increase the risk of developing breast cancer. With HRT, the hot flashes vanished, and I could resume a very active life. This was particularly helpful, since that year I ended up being the full-time caregiver for my mother, who was dying of a brain tumor in San Francisco.
I took care of her to the end. Then, I sold our family house and returned to Eugene, Oregon to recuperate. I bought a house and turned part of it into a rental, which I ran and set up a small pastry business specializing in cream puffs. I became a Certified Casting Instructor in the world of fly fishing and fished broadly for trout, steelhead, and salmon on many northwestern and Canadian lakes and rivers, plus bonefish and tarpon in Belize. I also taught fly fishing to middle schoolers, adults, Boy Scouts, and others. Having been “married in” to the Yakima tribe earlier in life, I was asked to take care of an elder at Warm Springs reservation in Oregon. I attended events and occasions with her, and even after she passed, I still often returned. Later on, I went back to work in personnel, my original field, for a local community college.
In retrospect, I had enough energy to do all those things in large part because HRT had delayed the normal effects of aging.
At 60, I went in for my annual mammogram as usual. When they wanted me to stay longer to get some extra pictures, I felt a little anxiety but wasn’t especially worried. And, when I was called into the back room to see the results of the additional x-rays, I was more curious than anything else. But I felt myself holding my breath. A man introduced as a radiologist had me sit down in the darkened room in front of a bank of back-lit x-rays and proceeded to explain that a faint triangle of a shadow in one breast might be breast cancer. I couldn’t breathe. I felt totally numb as I walked out of that office, and somehow, I made my way home in a drive I couldn’t remember afterward.
After my biopsy, when the doctors discussed the results, it was just so much noise. I was in shock as I sat in the oncology office listening to the explanation that I had breast cancer, that I needed surgery and possible radiation or chemotherapy. Breast cancer! But I was so healthy. How could that be? My father, who had been a physician, had steeled in me to always do what the doctors said, but I just wanted to scream and run off. I was furious that I had no control over what was happening to me, my body, my life.
You could have peeled me off the ceiling for weeks after my diagnosis, I was so shocked and angry.
A friend who’d survived her own breast cancer offered to go with me to appointments. I thought that was compassionate of her, but unnecessary. I lived alone and took care of my own life. But in truth, I couldn’t take in all the information I was given at appointments, about the biopsy, the surgery, another biopsy, lymph node loss, arm swelling, sleeves, medications, special bras, diet, exercise, hair loss, accelerated aging, on, and on, and on. My life was turned upside down. In reality, I did need someone else who could help me remember what all the doctors, nurses, nurse navigators, massage therapists, and staff told me as I dealt with stage I, hormone receptor-positive, HER2-positive breast cancer.
So I went through two biopsies, a lumpectomy, then radiation, tamoxifen and anastrozole (Arimidex) for a year –a year in which everyone else did things to me and told me what had to happen.
After it was all over, I learned of a program called Casting for Recovery (CfR) that was free to anyone who either had or has had breast cancer. Fly fishing was the main activity: why it would benefit me, since I had already both fly fished and taught it, was a mystery. But I read that there was a large number of breast cancer support staff involved–cancer nurses, doctors, social workers, nurse navigators–more of them than the 14 program participants! The retreat aimed to help survivors regain a sense of control and agency over their own lives again after breast cancer, by learning how to fly fish.
I registered online for a lottery of slots and was picked to attend a retreat in southern Oregon. All I had to do was show up, period. And I didn’t have to teach; I could just be a recipient. What a relief. Before the date of the retreat, I got a call from someone from the program who wanted to know what size waders I might wear and what my shoe size was. They supplied all the fishing clothing and equipment. I drove down to a luxurious resort complex in southern Oregon one Friday in September and was welcomed with dinner along with the other participants. At my seat were several gifts – toiletries, a blanket, and other self-care items that were unexpected gifts, all free to each of us. They supplied everything. It was incredible. In various rooms of the resort and outside on the lawn, they taught us how to tie flies; cast; learn about aquatic bugs and fish food; etc. We got together daily throughout the weekend in different activities. Although I already fly-fished, I even learned things. But what they really offered were simple get-togethers so we could ask the support people about our disease, recovery options and resources, and vent/process all our feelings about our experiences. No one had really asked us how we felt in our treatment process before this retreat.
And, as I told of my fierce outrage at getting my disease in one group meeting, I felt those feelings melt away, to my complete surprise. I hadn’t publicly expressed how I felt about getting breast cancer before that moment. I’d just been going to the appointments, getting operated on, having radiation, and trying to simply go on living. I didn’t realize that I needed to talk about my feelings and be heard.
I didn’t even know what “support” looked like before that weekend; afterward, I understood it was like having a warm blanket wrapped around me after being very cold for a long time. I’d never received such support before. As a very independent person, it was wonderful to simply receive. As a result, I no longer carry that intense anger. I’ve come to know that my anger comes from my fear, fear of losing control, fear that I’d die, fear and mistrust that the surgeon wouldn’t get it all, that I’d get it again.
With fly fishing, we participants were empowered to take back some agency we’d lost along the way to others who pretty much decided what would happen to us in the course of dealing with our disease. We were taught how to fly fish, how to be independent and basically competent in this sport. On the last day, we went fly fishing with a streamside helper on the Rogue River, catching our own fish and executing this activity with confidence, competence, and delight.
I know my breast cancer may come back even though a tumor biomarker (genomic) test showed that I had only a 10% chance of recurrence. I go for my annual mammogram and checkup and each year, I breathe more easily when I’m told I’m still clean. Twelve years out, I now volunteer to help other CfR participants learn how to cast a fly rod, catch and handle fish, and regain some sense of control over their own lives. Every year I help one of the women at the retreats (I’m matched up with a participant by the CfR staff) and each time, I’m happy to help one more survivor recover more of the life she had before she was struck with this disease.