Photos compliments of Winged Reel, Forbus Photography, Rivers & Feathers, and CfR. Story by Larry Chesney
Like rocks smoothed and shaped by the river, so are the hearts of those who wade there with rod, reel and fly. Their smiles are warm and genuine, bearing no hint of the pain they endure each day. These are warriors, determined to battle a disease that has the odds stacked heavily in its favor.
For a few days in November, these ten survivors of Stage IV metastatic breast cancer enjoyed much coddling and pampering at a first class lodge in the beautiful mountains of northeast Georgia.
It was all part of an annual retreat orchestrated by Casting for Recovery-Georgia. And as you can imagine by its name, the event is centered around fishing. Fly fishing to be exact. “On Friday afternoon, the women arrived at Smithgall Woods State Park,” said Kathy Harris, a Registered Nurse with the medical team that keeps tabs on the ladies on the river.
“They were fitted for their waders, got their gear, had a fireside gathering, then dinner, followed by knot tying instruction and casting practice.
“Saturday we had more casting instruction, knot-tying, and a medical talk by Lynn Howie, an oncologist who is part of the medical team.
“The day ended with a lot of sharing between these women. The metastic women have been in treatment for years, and the intimacy, the comradery, the love, the compassion for each other…it just blows me away.”
Kathy and her husband Jimmy own Unicoi Outfitters and also lease the stretch of the Chattahoochee where the fishing takes place. They both have a passion to share what they have with others, like the ladies of Casting for Recovery. Unicoi supplies guides along with the private waters where the ladies fish. CfR provides all the equipment, either locally, or shipped from the national office.
“Everybody’s priority is the participants,” Kathy continued. “That’s the most beautiful thing I see happen over the weekend. The goal for everybody is to see that each lady has a good experience.”
Julie Donaldson is one of the ten ladies who participated in this year’s gathering. She was happy to share her story.
“My cancer story started back in 2013 when I was 52 years old,” she began. “I went in for a regular mammogram and, lo and behold, I was sitting on the exam table, and this young PA came walking in and put my x-ray up on the screen. ‘See that?’ she said. I said, ‘Yes, but I don’t feel it.’ And she said, ‘Well, I hate to tell you but it’s cancer.’”
Julie was able to continue helping her ailing parents while working part-time as a nurse at Children’s Health Care of Atlanta. Plus, she had her own family to care for.
“Then, in 2016, they called to tell me my tumor marker was elevated. I didn’t quite know what that meant. It wasn’t until I got to the doctor’s office where he explained that the cancer had spread to my bones. It was in my spine. And they wanted to start me on some oral chemo.
“And there began my adventure of scans, blood draws, doctor’s appointments, and waiting and trying to find resources…you know, cancer diagnosis is a BEAST affecting all areas of our emotional, physical, social and financial lives. It took a lot of patience, and prayers and help from my sweet husband.
“I’m really doing quite well. I’m blessed. I had to give up a 36-year nursing career because of Covid and cancer. And I was sad about that, but then the fly fishing came in.”
A few years ago, Julie had the opportunity to join a one-day trout fishing retreat at Frog Hollow where she not only loved the beauty of the river – she became excited about fly fishing.
She took the next step and joined the Georgia Women Fly Fishers.
One thing led to another and Julie found out about CfR and sent in an application for the 2022 retreat. She was thrilled to be one of only ten selected.
“I think we all did really well at the river. Getting up and down the bank and all. And when I did get tired, I would wait until Jake was tying on a new fly or a leader, and just go sit along the river’s edge.
“There were a lot of really exciting moments. Being on the river with the others, and experiencing all the different sensations, and the joy of being on the water.
“And I think when a person has terminal cancer…and that’s what MBC is, there’s no cure… I think our days are pretty well structured. Everything you do has to be intentional. You want to try to set some goals. Being on the water just releases all that.
“I don’t have to think about what chores I need to get done, or the therapy I have today, or looking at my labs…all I have to do is release all that and focus on holding my rod, casting it in the water, and watching that indicator. And just watching the water move so rapidly across the rocks…and the problems and issues in the world, they kind of drift with the river. I feel in touch with the outdoors, the fresh air, and seeing the leaves move in the trees…it’s invigorating.
“It puts some life back into what can be hum-drum depressing days. I like to listen to the birds. I like to watch for the white water bubbles that the fish make. And you see their tails flap sometimes. It rejuvenates me.
“I always like to pick up a small rock wherever I have the opportunity to fish, and I put it with my potted plants on my deck. And this time, I came away with a big, beautiful heart-shaped rock. There’s such beauty in the smoothness and shape of a river rock. It’s been worn by the water over years and years and years.
“I kind of compare it to the way God is refining me, because…yeah, I’m having to go through really hard times…things that aren’t normal. Sitting in a chemo chair getting my labs drawn, or getting IV fluids. I’m thinking, this is so not normal. So uncomfortable. It’s nasty. It’s hard.
“But I think about the water running over those rocks, and I’m thinking, it’s refining me. It’s helping me to prove myself. God is showing me that he’s not through with me yet. And that I have life, and I have beauty besides what you look at.
The national CfR organization was founded in 1996 in Manchester, Vermont by Dr. Benita Walton, a breast reconstruction surgeon, and Gwen Perkins, a former Orvis casting instructor. They felt that breast cancer survivors could benefit from both the physical and spiritual influences of fly fishing.
Add the emotional benefits of connecting with nature while bonding with women dealing with the same issues, and you have the ingredients for some powerful medicine. For many, this unconventional kind of support group can be life-changing.
Today, the national Casting for Recovery organization provides retreats for women with breast cancer at no cost to the participants. More than 700 will have attended in 2022 across the country, and over 10,000 have benefitted from these since their inception.
The CfR-Georgia retreats rely on local funding. With additional funds, we would like to see more women enjoy the opportunity to share in the experience.
This year, over 700 women with breast cancer will enjoy the therapeutic qualities of fly fishing, thanks to Casting for Recovery.
“I think about the water running over those rocks,” Julie said after her morning on the Chattahoochee, “and I’m thinking, it’s refining me. It’s helping me to prove myself.
“God is showing me that he’s not through with me yet. And that I have life, and I have beauty… I am blessed.”
Anyone interested in donating to Casting for Recovery-Georgia, or volunteering for the program, can do so online at www.castingforrecovery.org. CfR is always looking for help with fundraising, events, planning of the retreats, guiding, and more.