'To fish is to hope:' Sherri Alper, MSS '82

The average fly fisher might measure success by hooking that elusive bass or trout on the end of her line.

But to participants in Casting For Recovery, catching a fish takes on a different meaning: The fishing is more important than the fish.

Casting For Recovery is a weekend-long fly-fishing retreat for women recovering from breast cancer. Sherri Alper, MSS '82, a clinical social worker, is a founding board member who created and supervises the program's psychosocial aspects. "The goal," says Alper, "is to provide an opportunity to focus on renewal, to learn a skill that puts women with breast cancer in touch with the natural world. They have been surrounded by the smell of hospitals rather than the smell of leaves." Alper views the program as a metaphor: "We tell participants, 'To fish is to hope.' And they understand."

Casting for Recovery is a nonprofit founded by two women in 1996, one a fly fisher, the other a reconstructive surgeon specializing in breast cancer treatment. They felt that the casting motion of fly-fishing effectively mimics the exercises prescribed by physicians to reduce lymphedema and restore mobility after surgery. Also, by encouraging breast cancer patients to learn a new sport, the retreat renews their commitment to the future. Thus, the focus of each weekend is on wellness as opposed to illness, empowerment as opposed to helplessness: "The retreats take participants out of familiar surroundings to a place of natural beauty, to be with other women who truly understand," says Alper.

Each retreat involves fly-fishing lessons as well as group discussions, networking and time alone to experience the natural world. Alper facilitates the retreats along with a medical professional (usually a nurse or physical therapist) and fly-fishing instructors "who have been trained in breast cancer issues and in working with women when emotions are high."

Alper says the psychosocial aspects include guided meditation and group activities: "A lot of women talk about having lost their balance, and how the weekend restores their sense of equilibrium. We have asked almost every group if they would rather have had us invite partners or spouses to come with them. Every single group has said no. They really see this as their time out, their time away from everything that is familiar."

Alper describes the participants as "wonderfully diverse groups of women, because breast cancer is an incredible leveler." Participants have ranged in age from 30 to 78. "Every retreat takes on the personalities of the women who attend, so every weekend is different," she says. "Deep bonds are forged through shared experience, learning and humor. Some of the women say they carry the memory of standing by the stream with the fishing rod in their hand and the sun slanting through the trees for a long time, and it means a lot to them. Some of them become avid fisherpeople; some will never fish again. But they have still gotten the message that there is a future to be had, even though it may be a changed future than the one they anticipated before they were diagnosed." For more information contact Casting for Recovery at (888) 553-3500.

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