The hobby giving women a retreat from breast cancer

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Hypnotherapy, massage and reflexology – but what about fishing as a therapy for breast cancer patients? Catherine Scott reports.

It is a glorious sunny day in the stunning surroundings of Coniston Hotel Country Estate.

Fourteen women are learning to fish, but that is not the only thing they have in common and this is not simply a case of learning a new hobby.

Every one of these women’s lives has been profoundly affected by breast cancer.

They have been selected to attend the all expenses-paid retreat hosted by Casting for Recovery, the unique outdoor therapy programme for women with breast cancer.

The programme brings together counselling and medical support with fly fishing tuition. It has been running for ten years with impressive results, supporting women with breast cancer as they move on from treatment.

The aim is to give the women a shared, safe environment in which to discuss their illness and share experiences.

They receive all the latest advice from an oncology nurse and an on-staff counsellor is also there to lend expertise on the specific fears and worries associated with breast cancer. Retreats can stir up emotions for many of the women, so the professionalism and expertise of the medics and counsellors is vital, says Sue Shaw from Casting for Recovery.

Sue has been fly fishing for more than 30 years and is a qualified fly fishing instructor and has twice been crowned as England Ladies National Champion.

The unique part of the programme is, of course, the top fly fishing instruction which is something most women have never tried before.

Sue says the benefits are clear: “A beautiful setting and some fresh air, some light physical movement that is entirely safe and the chance to learn a new skill which may well lead to landing a fish.”

Casting for Recovery is run by The Countryside Alliance Foundation which offers the experience to the ladies at no cost to them.

“All the ladies need to do is get to us and we take care of the rest,” explains Sue.

“One of the great strengths of the programme is that all ladies are equal, everyone has a voice and there is a wonderful sense of camaraderie as they share the weekend.

“We only go to really tip-top locations to give the ladies a real treat as they come through their treatment, and the backdrop of the stunning North Yorkshire scenery has been a real tonic for everyone.”

All fishing gear is supplied to Casting for Recovery by tackle and clothing manufacturers Orvis UK, so the women can feel like fisherwomen right from the moment they are issued with their kit.

“The surroundings were wonderful and the hotel and food were superb, as was the advice and tutoring from the guides on fly fishing which I will certainly pursue,” says Angie.

“I did have a little cry in the car whilst driving back as I was thinking about the lovely ladies where their cancer has returned and how strong and brave they are.

“My fish went straight in the oven when I got home!”

For Pauline the retreat offered double benefits.

“Not only did I benefit from all the sessions but I did also benefit from acquiring a new hobby – fly fishing. I’m now hooked!...  My guide has offered me a rod and reel to get my equipment started (how lucky am I?), and one of the Yorkshire ladies has suggested we go fishing together so it all just gets better.”

“I feel sure that lots of friendships were made over the weekend,” says Sue whose friend Sue Hunter brought Casting for Recovery to the UK ten years ago. “The retreats would not be possible without the huge support of our committed and merry band of volunteers, many of whom have been to a number of retreats over the years.  Their commitment and dedication is fundamental to making the programme work and I am hugely grateful to each and every one of them for their continued support.”

For Pamela the retreat was a real escape.“The retreat was an amazing experience and I have many happy memories. Everyone was so very kind and caring which meant the world, plus I now have a new hobby – thanks to you. I got somewhat emotional when the retreat ended, I think it was due to the fact that I’d enjoyed the whole experience more than I could possibly have imagined and it was tricky saying the many goodbyes. Because I was so immersed in everything, I hardly gave a thought to anything else and that was a treat in itself. Thanks to everyone who did so much for us.”

For participant Anne it was chance to focus on something other than cancer. “I couldn’t believe all the work that went into the whole weekend and the realisation that it was all done just to help us. It’s a great charity and a brilliant idea,” says Anne. “I had the chance to go on a Younger Women Together weekend in Edinburgh, which is great for so many of the girls but for me, I didn’t want the whole weekend to be all about cancer. The fact that this is about fly-fishing too is just amazing.”

Casting for Recovery runs five or six retreats a year and this was the second visit to Coniston, which is hopefully now a firm annual diary fixture. The team will soon host a retreat in the West of Ireland before moving on to Hampshire, Dundee and then Devon later in the year. Ladies who have (or have had) breast cancer are welcome to apply to attend. Places on retreat are allocated by ballot and are subject to medical clearance.

Casting for Recovery started in the UK and Ireland ten years ago.It was originally brought to the UK from the United States by Sue Hunter who’d had breast cancer twice and was recommended fly fishing by a male fishing friend of hers. Initially sceptical, she soon loved it and went on to captain the England Ladies Fly Fishing team.

Sue appreciated the therapeutic benefits of casting a line and so looked around for a way to spread the word. She discovered what Casting for Recovery are doing in the States so approached the Countryside Alliance for funding and the rest is history. Casting for Recovery UK & Ireland is now a flagship project of The Countryside Alliance Foundation. Casting for Recovery provides an opportunity for women whose lives have been profoundly affected by breast cancer to gather on an all-expenses paid retreat to learn the beautiful art of fly fishing. Just as importantly, the retreats offer an opportunity to meet new friends, share stories, support others and, crucially, have fun.