Rick Frame, MD Utah Cancer Specialists – CPAN Medical Chairman
You may think that as a practicing cancer doctor in Salt Lake City for over 25 years, I would get plenty of exposure to cancer patients. But in early June 2011, I was overwhelmed and blown away by the honesty, compassion, emotion and sharing made by men cancer patients at a Reel Recovery fly- fishing retreat.
Three times a year, my group, Utah Cancer Specialists, helps sponsor male cancer patients to participate in a cancer support fishing retreat, held by Reel Recovery, a national non-profit organization that conducts these free retreats all over the country. I have participated in Utah every year since 2004 and the program keeps getting bigger, stronger and helping more patients.
We had the good fortune to attend the June 2011 retreat at Falcon’s Ledge, an Orvis endorsed fishing lodge near Duchesne, Utah. The owners and staff bent over backwards to help make the men feel comfortable. Deluxe accommodations for the men, gourmet meals and 7 ponds stocked with rainbow, brook, and brown trout are all part of the wonderful experience at Falcon’s Ledge.
The allure of participating in a fishing retreat with a bunch of men is the hook that is used to catch people’s interest. The real learning and growth comes from the “Courageous Conversations” sessions held frequently throughout the retreat. The leader initiates the conversation with general comments about the program and creates a safe environment for men to share openly. It doesn’t take long for the men to learn about each other’s conditions and begin to openly share their stories and deepest feelings about their cancer experiences.
Between the meetings, there is plenty of time for fishing. A short classroom lecture and then the men are ready for their gear. Fishing vests from prior retreats are signed by the present participants. These are then passed on to future participants at future retreats. The vest signing ceremony creates a sense of longevity and participation in a program which will continue long after any one patient may have passed on.
Many of the participants had not fished before. Some had not fished for years. Others were expert fisherman. All of them got to fish with a volunteer Fishing Buddy, expert fly-fishers who act as personal fishing guides for each patient. The Buddies help the patients tie on flies, cast, retrieve, and give insight to fly fishing. They also share stories and create strong bonds of friendship. I am sure the Buddies enjoy the experience as much as the patients; I know I did:
On the first evening of the retreat a patient who will go by the name of “Fred” complained that he was not a fisherman. He didn’t like to fish and his only experience with fishing had been quite unsatisfactory. There was no doubt that he had some misgivings about participating in the retreat. It so happens that part of the joy for me at these retreats is fishing early before the meetings start. It was the next day of the retreat at 6 am that I was having some good success with olive woody buggers off the bottom. The rainbow and tiger trout were just waking up. As I was enjoying this moment of serenity before the day got going, who would happen to come walking down the road but Fred. I knew this was my opportunity to change his life. I felt like Tom Sawyer handing the paintbrush to Fred when I said, “Would you like to catch a fish”? His eyes lit up and his grin of excitement told me that he was indeed interested. I asked him whether he wanted to learn how to fly fish or to catch a fish and he immediately responded like most people I think would, “I want to catch a fish”. It was then that I set up the cast and allowed him to retrieve it when sure enough he felt the tug. That jerk on the end of the line I think changed his life. He had an immediate connection with another life force that challenged the way that he thought about the world; he became part of it. Both he and I couldn’t wait to get back to breakfast to tell the rest of the group that this once pessimistic participant had become a believer in the power of fishing and healing.
I was next asked to buddy up with a cancer patient by the name of “Frank”. Frank impressed me from the start. He was a former special-ops agent who regaled the group with stories of jumping out of planes at 30,000 feet, conducting night operations in Alaska and working with the Israeli security forces. Frank was a fighter and it was still apparent that he hadn’t changed. It was obvious that at one time he was an apparent bear of a man who had withered somewhat after his cancer diagnosis and treatments. He had mantle cell lymphoma and had undergone a bone marrow transplant. There was concern about recurrence and additional treatments that could be required.
We decided to go to a pond that required a little bit of walking and it was quite obvious that he was winded by the time we got there. He was able to sit down and collect himself. Frank, having been fly-fishing a few times before was familiar with some of the technique. After some refinements, he was into the fish. After a few fish, it became apparent that he was exhausted and he had to lie down on the ground. In his work, Frank must have spent a lot of time on the ground because he felt very comfortable lying on the ground. As a doctor, I looked at him and it looked like he was just resting. He wasn’t passed out; he was collecting himself for more fishing! Sure enough, after a few moments of rest he would sit up on the edge of the bank, lean against the cooler and continue to cast into the pond where he caught several additional beautiful fish. We got used to him lying on the ground, if it didn’t bother him it didn’t bother us and all of us were able to continue the comradery with tremendous vigor.
The last cancer participant I would like to tell you about is Mark Shurtleff. He is the Attorney General for the state of Utah and has been battling colon cancer. His treatments were stopped after severe toxicity and he earned a place at the table of these other courageous fighters. Mark had twisted his back perhaps from vigorous casting and found his way to the hot tub. As I was walking down to the pond after lunch, I saw him relaxing in the hot tub. I couldn’t resist so I handed him a fly rod and took his picture. He was extremely polite about the whole game and pretended to fly fish from a hot tub at a fly-fishing retreat. What a photo-op! It reflects the comfortable relaxed atmosphere created at the Reel Recovery retreat.
Tremendously close bonds of friendship, teamwork, and support were forged at this retreat. Many tears were shed but they were tears of growth and camaraderie. The men got to share their deepest emotions in ways that were suppressed for many years. Several of the participants have said that this was the best weekend of their life and I have to agree. It keeps me coming back to gain strength from the experience that these brave fighters have gone through. I only wish we could allow each cancer patient to feel some of the peace and serenity that was present at these fishing retreats. They deserve no less.