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If You Teach a Man to Fly-Fish …

by Patrick Case

Inspiration image

The discussion at our first Reel Recovery “Courageous Conversations” meeting at the Big K Guest Ranch in Elkton, Oregon, started easy enough – our facilitator, Coy, asked each of us to state our full name. That done, we were each asked to share a story about our first fishing experience. Also easy enough … but it didn’t take a particularly bright person to see this was only the prelude to discussions of the real reason we were here: cancer and its impact on our lives.

I went to the retreat fully prepared to spend the next couple of days with a group of kindred spirits bonded by a disease, as well as do a little bass fishing with a fly rod. What I wasn’t prepared for was the touching, personal, and candid stories each person shared with the group. In our “Courageous Conversations” over a two-day period, we each discussed our cancer experiences, how cancer had changed our lives and affected our relationships with others, and a myriad of related issues. While everyone had obviously given a lot of thought to how cancer had affected his life, this was the first time many of us had verbalized our thoughts to others ... certainly to strangers.

Universally, on being diagnosed with cancer, we all admitted the news caused us immediately to take stock of what was truly important in our lives and “reset our life compass,” as one participant put it. Universally, as well, it is family and friends who we now treasure more than ever, and the meaningless minutia we too often fill our lives with is pushed off the list of priorities.

No one was thinking about cancer while waving a fly rod on the river.

At our first meeting, we each described our cancer experience. While the details of the stories were different, the motives of most to fight on were similar. Shortly before Scott was diagnosed with cancer, fate brought a now three-year-old daughter into his life, which gave him plenty of reason to fight on. For Mark, who had worked for IBM, his new mission was teaching older adults how to use personal computers. For others, it was devoting their lives to helping others cope with cancer, or simply bonding closer with their extended families.

Other topics included how cancer has changed our relationships with others, how cancer has affected our sense of masculinity, and what benefits have come from having cancer. For most, the common response to the last topic was, simply put, that it served as a wake-up call to focus our lives on the things – family, friends, helping others, activities we most enjoy – that are truly important to us and letting the trivial things go.

We all arrived at the retreat on a Wednesday afternoon and were introduced to the principals of fly-casting and fishing the next morning. The group of participants – ranging in age from 40-something to 70-something – took to the fly rods like boys getting their first cane poles to drown worms with. By the last morning of the retreat, many in the group were on the edge of their seats waiting for the final “Courageous Conversation” to wrap up so they could get back on the river. I commented to Coy that I believed the retreat had spawned a few more fanatical fly-fishermen. Clearly, no one was thinking about cancer while waving a fly rod on the river.

I doubt any of us had any preconceived ideas about what we would take away from the retreat. Some expressed they were changed men for the experience. For others, it was knowing they weren’t alone in their fight, being able to share thoughts and feelings with others who truly understood, and knowing that they were now part of a small fraternity whom they could always count on.

For everyone, it was a chance to experience Reel Recovery founder Stu Brown’s legacy of sharing the healing serenity that fly-fishing provides. But the nine participants of this Reel Recovery retreat experienced more than a few hours of diversion from their preoccupation with cancer. To borrow a line, take a man fly-fishing and you take his mind off cancer for the day; teach a man to fly-fish and you give him the opportunity to take his mind off cancer for the rest of his life.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Patrick Case is a freelance writer and photographer and has been an avid fly-fisher for 13 years. He lives in San Diego and is the founder and past president of Golden State Flycasters.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2008.