It has been ten years since the call came...cancer. A decade! You always know exactly where you were. The date, December 28, 2010. Hard to believe. To honor this decade milestone (a day I always cherish), I am republishing this story and remembering all the people who came into my life and followed on that journey. Plus, the sidebar article recounting those days that seem like a dream to me now. The Diagnosis. It's true that throughout this journey I said more than once, "I was so lucky!" In October 2015, I went in for my fourth annual check-up. The letter came days later, the opening sentence said it all, "We are pleased to inform you that your Breast Imaging exam shows no evidence of cancer." So lucky.
Breast Cancer Survivors Retreat & Renew
Photo Credits Peg Miskin & Barbara L. Steinberg
California is vast. Even with today’s sprawling communities, breathtaking open spaces are abundant in far-reaching corners of northeastern California. Envision serene places and natural beauty that can heal body and spirit near ancient and ritual temples such as Mt. Shasta and Burney Falls. Imagine, too, being presented the gift of a weekend retreat at a historic lodge near rushing rivers and world-class fly-fishing including river guides! All of this at no cost other than a little gas money.
Sound too good to be true? Not so. Just fill out an application. If the stars align, they draw your name. You could be one of 14 lucky women chosen to enjoy this tranquil haven. What’s the catch? There’s just one. You must be a breast cancer survivor! An elite club, breast cancer survivors are treated to this life-altering experience. As if breast cancer weren’t that, too.
Casting for Recovery, a nonprofit organization, along with a cadre of compassionate sponsors are the benefactors of this generous offering. Headquartered in Vermont, Casting for Recovery provided 47 retreats in 33 states in 2011. Their Santa Rosa office facilitates two retreats in northern California. This past August, 14 remarkable and beautiful women – different ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds – gathered at Clearwater Lodge at the Pit River to share their stories of despair, hope, recovery, and survival. The weekend focuses on the fine art of fly-fishing. It’s an excellent therapy for anyone recovering from the rigors of breast cancer surgeries and treatments; a Zen moment.
One-by-one women arrive on a Friday afternoon. Greeted by CFR staff, they tell each women, “We are here to serve you!” For most of us, this is a foreign concept – to be served instead of serving. As we wait to check-in, there’s an exchange of pleasantries, “Hi, My name is _____, from _____.” Soon we are chatting like old acquaintances. Rooms are assigned, some shared. We settle in and then gather to be fully-garbed in the finest Orvis waders, fly-fishing vests, and boots. Before long, everyone is laughing and looking like fly-fishing professionals. The moment is light. An open book whose pages we have yet to turn. Not one among us could possibly predict the outcome.
A jar of endless homemade cookies and the most divine gourmet cuisine is another highlight. Chef Noel Wright is celebrating her 17th season at the Lodge. Over the weekend, we will gorge on Mahi Mahi, grilled asparagus, strawberry scones, whole wheat pancakes, fresh fruit, cheesecake with blueberries, and more of those famous cookies. No guest at Clearwater Lodge ever left hungry! The dining room is a cacophony of voices at every meal. Everyone is talking at once and you would think we had been together for years.
From early Saturday morning to mid-afternoon on Sunday a fly-fishing course, free time, meals, and discussions are adeptly orchestrated into our stay. We learn the basics of casting, knot tying, what fish eat, and more casting. Some have fished before. Some not at all. We all start as beginners guided by accomplished women fly-fisher staff. They are patient and giving. And while our casts may not be perfect, we receive big doses of positive reinforcement and many hugs. Training is interspersed with sharing of history. What kind of breast cancer. When? Surgeries. Which drugs and treatments. How many years? Family issues. Relapse. The stories are as varied as our ages and circumstances. The common thread, the double-surgeon’s knot that binds us together, is that we are all survivors.
During two discussion sessions each woman shares her story. The most poignant and powerful moments spent as friends and survivors. There is more laughter and tears. Nodding and shaking of heads; breathlessly listening to tales of strength and optimism. We hear over and over, not just about fears but about the blessings. And the good luck that brought us to this magical place.
Sunday, the moment of truth arrives! We gather to read poetry and prayers, and sing songs. At breakfast, we are joined by volunteer River Helpers who, one-on-one, will guide us to fly-fish. We climb into our fishing regalia and head-off to Hat Creek. The energy is palpable. Each two-some must establish a relationship of trust and communication. The Helpers support us as we navigate the rushing waters and provide guidance on fly-fishing techniques. Secretly, I think, we all hoped to catch something – some did – but for those few hours cancer was left behind and we were all fly-fishers together.
It’s hard to leave the river. The retreat is coming to an end and we will disperse to our various lives. At a brief graduation ceremony there are more hugs and tears. Words of thanks and gratitude for gifts we cannot even begin to describe. Only 48 hours, departing is truly the hardest part.
You don’t have to be a breast cancer survivor to enjoy the wilds of Clearwater Lodge, fly-fishing, or the beauty of northern California. To quote Sally Stoner, an extraordinary teacher and fly-fisher, “A lot of it is just being there. You being part of it, and feeling it.”
Go…and be there!
The Whole Story in Photos
Behind the Hats We're All the Same
We Went to the River
Casting for Recovery still provides these retreats in various locations throughout the United States. During the time of COIVD, like so many things, retreats are on hold. Check online for the Casting for Recovery Northern California Retreat or Casting for Recovery Southern California Retreat dates. If you or someone you qualifies, please apply. It will change your life.
Make a donation and designate northern or southern California as the recipient.