Fly-fishing is reaching beyond the river to benefit breast cancer survivors.
Professional guides accustomed to rich, trophy-hunting American men turn their hand to teaching a bunch of often-giggling, first-timer New Zealand women.
These women laugh, learn and are pampered. They stay at a luxury lodge and enjoy massages, manicures and meals, alongside donning gumboots to wade into water to catch trout.
In New Zealand and other countries, Casting For Recovery (CFR) organises free fly-fishing retreats for women with a breast cancer diagnosis, whether that is recent or from a decade ago.
The CFR South Coordinator, Lisa Brits, says the benefits are both physical and psychological.
“It’s about fly-fishing but it’s not about catching a fish,” she says.
It’s also about standing in a river in one of New Zealand’s wild places, being in nature and breathing fresh air.
Taking a breath, taking a moment.”
The weekend retreat also offers relaxation away from whatever roles they’re used to fulfilling, such as employer, employee, mother, sister or daughter.
Lisa is a physiotherapist and says that for a cancer patient post-surgery, the movement of fly-fishing, lifting her arms above her head, is beneficial. This posture improves circulation and lymphatic drainage.
Most of the women haven’t tried trout fishing before, yet are “up for anything” because with the cancer, they’ve “been to hell and back”.
The retreat is often the first break from their support networks.
A lottery determines participants and most don’t know each other until they arrive at a luxury lodge, about to learn how to tie a fly.
“You meet as strangers and you go away as friends.”
Inspired by Murchison experience
As someone recovering from breast cancer, Lisa participated in a retreat in Murchison in 2015.
“For me, it was the first time that I’d gone away from my family and stepped away from all that security.”
She says cancer patients have been in a safe, secure treatment environment filled with structure and routine. The retreats enable them to step out and try something new and fun.
She was so impressed by her Murchison experience that she asked why retreats couldn’t be organised in the lower South Island.
Two years later, Lisa began the southern chapter of the volunteer-run, not-for-profit organisation, which originated in the United States.
Since 2017, the branch has run an annual ‘south of the south’ retreat for 10 women each time. Their ages range from the early-thirties to late-seventies and they’re from as far afield as the West Coast and Canterbury.
Local fishing guides donate their time. Some have been the friend, husband or brother of someone with breast cancer.
They are amazing, they fall over themselves to help.”
On the Saturday as a group, participants learn to cast a fly-fishing rod and make their own flies. On the Sunday, they venture to a river, one-on-one with their own guide.
Wānaka guide Jeff Forsee and Christchurch guide Kristina Placko have volunteered at all the southern retreats, as has Steve Dixon from Fish & Game in Dunedin.
Funded through generosity
Casting For Recovery fundraises for food, transport and insurance for the retreats, and earlier fundraising bought fishing gear – boots, waders and rods.
Lime Tree Lodge near Wānaka and Nokomai Station in Southland have donated accommodation and this November, Wild Earth Lodge in Makarora will do the same.
Others who donate their time and skills include a nurse and a psychologist who stay at the lodge with the women and are available 24-7.
Chefs, massage therapists, beauticians and yoga or Pilates practitioners also volunteer in order to treat the women.
Speaking of treats, the Good Bitches Baking charity supplies plenty of sweet ones.
And Lisa, who lives in Dunedin, couldn’t run the retreats without the “Pinkies”, five or six other volunteers based in the city.
“They are wonderful, helpful people.”
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