Catherine Guzman blames the Irish Sea for her breast cancer, so it is only fitting that water is playing a role in her recovery
"In Ireland, anywhere there is water, there is cancer," she said. "Our waters are so polluted that we have 60 percent more radiation in our country than what is healthy and acceptable."
When she was 24, Guzman was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. At 37, she had cancerous tumors and cysts removed from her body. At 39, she had cancer in both breasts-two different cancers. Now, she is recovering from brain surgery.
But Guzman seems to glide over these seemingly mountainous struggles as though they were speed bumps. Watching her land a rainbow trout, her battle with cancer seems far away. "I got him!," she exclaimed. "I got him! Oh, he's so gorgeous." Nearby anglers cheered her success.
She and 14 other women were taking part in a healing, fly-fishing retreat sponsored by Casting for Recovery, a national, nonprofit program founded for women in 1996 by Gwenn Perkins, a renowned fly-fisher and by Dr. Benita Walton, a breast reconstructive surgeon and fly-fisher.
Like Project Healing Waters, Casting for Recovery has used the healing powers of rivers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and elsewhere as the sites for two-week retreats. The Chesapeake Women Anglers, based in the District of Columbia metro area, is very involved in the Virginia and Maryland retreats. They staff the retreats and provide volunteer as guides and river helpers for the women.
In 2008, 36 retreats took place in 27 states. In total, more than 850 active volunteers are involved in this year's CFR retreats. Besides national sponsors, many small, fly-fishing clubs, shops and dedicated individuals help with each program.
One out of eight women either has or will develop breast cancer in her life. Each year, more than 200,000 women will be diagnosed and more than 40,000 will die. The Casting for Recovery program provides an opportunity for women whose lives have been profoundly affected by the disease to gather in a natural setting and learn fly-fishing, "a sport for life."
For the majority, it is their first fly-fishing experience.
On the retreat, the women learn the fundamentals of fly casting, entomology, knot-tying and equipment. They also address all components of the recovery process-physical, psychological and social.
But most importantly, they get to spend time on the water with very supportive people.
At every retreat, a psychotherapist and a physical therapist or a nurse is available. "The act of casting and the range of motion is very beneficial at preventing lymphadema, a very painful condition that can occur from inactivity, where the tissue fills with fluid," said Nina Sullivan, a registered certified oncology nurse who accompanied Guzman and the other women on their retreat. "The increased blood flow from the exercise also aids in healing."
The physical benefits are not the only gifts of fly-fishing. "Fly fishing helps the women hook into something that is always there for them-the soothing power and beauty of nature," said Pat Holden, the psycho/social facilitator during a retreat in Virginia. "There is something in the natural world that endures, that revives us all."
Fly-fishing is less about strength and more about technique and finesse, both of which can quickly be learned by women. And while they are perfecting their casting technique, this gentle motion provides therapy for their joints and tissues, stretching the areas where radiation or surgery has taken place.
Many retreat attendees become fly-fishing advocates, discovering a whole new world in the natural environment. Trout Unlimited also kick-starts them into becoming conservationists by giving every woman a complimentary membership.
Norma Kawecki, outings coordinator for Chesapeake Women Anglers, said that the organization has a strong conservation component built into its Casting For Recovery activities. "We talk about stream awareness, our impact, invasive threats to our waters," she said. "The retreat attendees are given a membership in the CWA and many return to assist in our stream cleanups and restorations that we have in conjunction with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other groups."
Participants also return to help the Maryland Department of Natural Resources with trout stocking and inventory.
"Trout only live in beautiful places," retreat and participant coordinator Lisaann Permunian said. "Nature is so relaxing and being here gives us a chance to reflect on what we've been through. I can say to these women anglers that we don't have to sit home and feel sorry for ourselves. I've been through three surgeries, chemo and radiation, but I am doing so many things in my life since my cancer, things I never thought I would be able to do, like fly-fish."
Permunian is a five-year survivor and has experienced the program from both ends-as a participant and a facilitator, as do many of the volunteers.
"To be where the fish are, to stand in the river and say, 'Oh my God, I'm alive.' That is so overwhelming and such a gift.'"
For information about Casting for Recovery, call 888-553-3500 (toll-free) or visit www.castingforrecovery.org.