Tuesday 12th June 2012
Yvonne McKenna on the Casting for Recovery programme
Yvonne McKenna tries her hand at fly fishing as part of a unique rehabilitation programme for women affected by breast cancer.
Three years after my breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, I caught sight of an advert for a fly fishing programme for women who have or have had breast cancer. Wasn’t that what the Queen Mum used to do? This was an offer too good to miss.
Run by Casting for Recovery UK & Ireland (CFR), the programme is the first of its kind in the UK. It uses a unique formula of fly fishing, counselling, and education to promote mental and physical healing. Women have the opportunity to gather in a beautiful, natural setting and learn fly fishing while meeting new friends and having fun.
Women apply to attend a retreat (with medical clearance) and, if they are successful (places are allocated by ballot), they are then taken away on a two and a half day experience that past participants have said is among the best they have ever had. CFR has ongoing funding from several generous donors, so retreats are at no cost to the women taking part.
Fly fishing relieves everyday stress and promotes a sense of calm. It also offers a gentle form of exercise for joint and soft tissue mobility, and requires little strength so is perfectly safe and comfortable. Women are taught the fundamentals of fly casting, entomology, knot-tying and equipment basics – but most importantly, they spend time on the water practising ‘catch-and-release’ fishing.
Trained facilitators run each retreat and include a psychotherapist, a healthcare professional (such as a physiotherapist or nurse), and three or four qualified fly fishing instructors. One-on-one counselling is available at any time, and the focus is on supporting the women, encouraging them to take things at their own pace, doing as much or as little as they feel able.
I applied and was selected to go to the Forbes of Kingennie resort in Broughty Ferry in Angus, Scotland. I arrived at Forbes after a long train journey through some glorious countryside. I was met at the reception and shown to the wooden lodge where I would be staying with 11 other women who had been selected.
The lodge was beautiful with large light, airy lounges that looked out on to beautiful Scottish fishing lakes and rolling countryside. The other women were already there tucking into afternoon tea. We then met the team who would be looking after us.
We, the ‘patients’, were a mixed bag of ages, experiences and in various stages of recovery from breast cancer. One woman had recently finished her chemotherapy treatment and wanted to get back to some semblance of normality. Another had been treated several years ago and found that she could not adjust psychologically to life after cancer.
One woman had been treated for breast cancer many years ago but had been told that the cancer had spread. She wanted to experience all that life had to offer before she was no longer physically be able. One woman’s husband had left her when she was diagnosed with cancer, never to return. We all had in common the need to meet with others who had been in a similar position, and a sense of adventure in attempting, what was for most of us, a novel experience. Most of us had done little or no fishing.
After being kitted out with over trousers and jackets, tack vests, hats, gloves and sun glasses, we were given fishing rods and a tool box. We were ready for our first fly fishing lesson. The fly fishing instructors cast their lines perfectly and patiently explained the process to us all. They then worked with us in small groups of three.
It became very clear that my group was not talented, skilled, or in any way able to pick up the rudimentary rules of fishing. A divide emerged, those that could and those that couldn’t. I was in the ‘couldn’t’ group.
As other groups of women picked up the necessary skills and expertly tied and cast their lines, my group was hopelessly tangled up in plastic line. There was a fair amount of concentration from my group at the beginning, but that degenerated into stressful frustration involving choice language and general vulgarity as our inability to learn the basics continued.
It’s amazing just how quickly two hours pass when you are concentrating on something new, and how quickly you can gel with complete strangers when you are occupied in a joint aim. Over dinner that evening it was as though we had all known each other for years. Personal stories were told, memories recalled; there was laughing and some crying.
Learning the ropes
The next morning we had an indoor lesson that involved identifying and naming the different flies that live in the trout lakes. Our tutors had been out to the lake with jam jars, and filled them up with lake water, vegetation and lake inhabitants. We learned that if you can identify what the fish are eating, you can then select the most appropriate fishing fly to use.
After lunch we got dressed in our fishing garb and ventured out for more fly fishing practice. My group was performing slightly better and managed not to show ourselves up quite as much as the day before. We were all only allowed to practise our casting in the field. If we got better, we could then progress to the actual lake and try to catch a trout.
In between fishing there was the opportunity to attend sessions that were aimed at particular issues connected with breast cancer. Our breast cancer counsellors held an informal discussion about lymphoedema. Several of the women had lymphoedema and found the discussions extremely useful.
Afterwards we had a discussion about diet and exercise after having breast cancer. These were great opportunities to learn from each other and pass on tips and new ideas.
Casting the perfect line
On our final day we were up, breakfasted and dressed to kill before going out to the lake to be introduced to our gillies. The ‘gillie’ is somebody whose job is to assist or guide people who go angling or deer-stalking in Scotland. My gillie, Tom, explained that his job was to help me catch a trout.
I didn’t hold much hope of this but to my surprise, my fishing skills had improved overnight. I chose to use my Super Damsel fly and I was able to cast the perfect line. I caught a trout. Tom whacked it on the head, wrapped it up and I stowed it away in my bag, ready for dinner that night. Most of us were lucky to catch a fish and those that did were immensely proud of ourselves.
This experience was great in that it wasn’t a dedicated ‘cancer course’, but rather a course learning a new skill that also happened to be offered to a group of people who had had breast cancer.
Contact Yvonne McKenna, Macmillan Lead Cancer Nurse, Cancer Services Department, UHSM FT at Wythenshawe Hospital, Manchester, on 0161 291 4929
or email Yvonne
Casting for Recovery
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