Written by: Mary Jane Edwards
[Editor’s Note: In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and in celebration of the brave women and men who battle this dreadful disease, we’d like to share with you the remarkable journal of Mary Jane Edwards, a participant in Casting for Recovery’s Wyoming retreat this past summer. In addition to possessing great courage and good humor, Ms. Edwards is a gifted writer. We thank her for sharing her journey. And kudos to the staff and volunteers of CFR for their life-affirming work.]
Casting For Recovery Diary and After Thoughts 8.11.13 – 9.2.13
By Mary Jane Edwards
I was bit surprised by a twinge of nervousness as I turned off the black top on to the road that wandered up the Dunoir Valley toward the Absaroka Ranch. The lush green pastures and a ribbon of sparkling water which paralleled the road quickly distracted me. Timely placed Casting for Recovery signs festooned by pink balloons marked the various turns leading up to the ranch gate. Small clusters of women dressed casually and comfortably for the day stood and chatted around the parking lot.
Heads turned toward my approaching car. Before I knew it, I was welcomed with handshakes, hugs, a round of introductions and smiles that quickly put me at ease. Gear was unloaded and transferred to a cabin. After a quick tour along the way, I sat on the bed and looked around at all the details that made the space, comfortable, warm and welcoming. I sighed and was home for the weekend. I picked up my CFR cap and was out the door to start my adventure.
Out under the cool of trees shading chairs and a picnic table, I joined women engaged in easy conversation. Tags with name and town eased introductions and jogged memories throughout the weekend. More women joined. Soon all the chairs were filled and Mary Turney, the driving force behind the weekend and CFR Wyoming welcomed all and summarized housekeeping, contact, needs and details for the next days.
What followed after that and throughout the next day and a half was a seamless outpouring of care, thoughtfulness, understanding, respect and love focused around the fourteen participants who were in various stages of a journey with breast cancer and survival. What also became clearly apparent was that this range of feelings was also shared among the volunteers, sponsoring hosts and hostesses in various settings, the fishing and breast cancer support experts who brought their insight and expertise, the volunteer fishing guides and the previous CFR weekend participants who were on hand as volunteers. Humbling? Yes! Overwhelming? Yes, I was absolutely whelmed right over!
I was deeply touched by the commitment and conviction of the individuals, whether they were on hand for a few hours or had been there for days before setting up and would be there to clean up, or had invested hours of planning, organizing, managing development work and troubleshooting throughout the year. With thirty years of teaching and administration and then over a decade developing and directing a residency program for artists and writers, I could easily imagine the amount of time, effort, energy, expertise, sheer determination seasoned with a healthy dose of love and caring that it takes to put on an annual weekend like CFR Absoraka 2013.
I have always been on the giving end of the formula. I was always the multi-tasker, problem solver, burn the candle at both ends, 24/7 go to person, independent, super woman. I was in great health and had never asked anyone for help for myself. January 3rd a second mammogram and biopsy changed my options. I keep everything close to my breast! All the emotions, doubts, pain, and anxiety ran rampant below the surface, as I continued work and kept up my usual Pollyanna, positive outlook and smile attitude. I finally told a colleague at work because I needed someone to drive me home from outpatient surgery in Billings for a lumpectomy on February 26th. I did not tell a good friend as we drove down to Laramie a few days later where I was moderating a 2.5 hour panel for an arts conference. She was driving back and forth to Minneapolis as a care giver for her sister in law who was in the middle of chemotherapy. I figured that she already had enough to do. In March and April I shopped in Texas with my employer and organized and supervised crew and loading of three 53″ semis full of antiques for a business. May 3rd I told my employer that I had cancer and I would be moving up to Billings the next day to start radiation for a month. Mid-June I popped out with C7 shingles on my back, shoulder, down my arm to my fingers. Then thirty-six days of diarrhea really took my mind off breast cancer. Fortunately all this cleared up enough, so that literally a few days later I was on my way to the CFR weekend with my secret and super woman still intact.
So what was all that about? Why do I tell you all of that?
Background. Background. Background.
What also happened that CFR weekend was a seamless schedule. Instruction in the basics of fly fishing from knots to the thrill of catching. Evening entertainment around a campfire bundled up with blankets listening to a musician lift spirits with her lyrics and strumming or mosh pitting to warm up and loosen up kinks. Bonding conversations over delicious meals served round tables or picnic style in beautiful outdoors settings. Down time for casual and often more personal conversations before bed with a roommate or cabin mates, for renewing walks around the ranch, for journaling, for a nap, or to join several women water coloring or drawing mandelas in an art session which proved to be much more about time for needed and welcomed conversation with the art as a welcomed backdrop for gathering and sharing thoughts.
These times all built the foundation for conversations that became more personal, deeper and more intimate among the participants. Focused sessions around shared issues of concern with reoccurrence, lymph edema and sex in spite of breast cancer sensitively opened up an opportunity and respect for each individual’s comfort and need to hear and express her fears, her challenges, her doubts, her concerns, her strength or fear of lacking in the face of family difficulties (even spousal cancer), her coping skills, her compromises or her drive for survival. Tears. Compassion. Empathy. Laughter. Respect. Caring. The sincere expression of support and love all characterized these sessions on the part of the participants. The tone for these sessions early on was clearly and thoughtfully guided by the respective moderator in keeping with her expertise and personality. The time and timing in the weekend were perfect. After the more intense Saturday session, down time around the campfire allowed for participants to continue conversations one on one or to relax under the stars.
Mary quickly picked up on a comment in an earlier email that I had fly fishing gear which belonged to my father. ‘Bring it!’ came back her immediate reply. I was so touched by the interest, care and shared excitement over hauling rods out of cases and digging through a tackle box. I came away with not only information about the probable date, manufacturer, style and the use of the rods and reels, but also options for future use and interest. None were upscale handmade rods or top of the line gear. I didn’t expect that. Instead I was humbled once again by the thoughtfulness and respect for my father and the love of the craft that came as we were all looking at a small box of my father’s hand tied flies, some pretty chewed up from past conquests with Yellowstone cutthroat trout. My fishing buddy of fifty-three years had been gone for eight, but was very present at that moment.
Now some weeks later, some aspects and discoveries during the CFR weekend still hold strong in my memory. I have always been fond of thinking that when you get a bunch of women together, ‘Watch out!’ The life experiences and the breast cancer journeys shared by the women participants and returning volunteers over the weekend were testimony over and over again to the courage in face of the cancer diagnosis, surgery, treatment, follow up checkups, news of reoccurrence, prognosis of Stage 4 and sometimes even a cancer diagnosis of a spouse, child, or loved one in the midst of coping with their own challenges. Brave survivors supporting others along the way could find a selfless outpouring of first hand understanding of the emotional roller coaster, the physical pain, struggles with self image, sorting out options and making a decision about treatment, holding down a job, caring for family and sometimes even the financial worry of medical bills in face of no insurance. What a relief to be in a safe place and gather strength from those around the circle, or partnered for a conversation during a walk, over a meal or in the cozy comfort of the cabin while sitting like dorm roommates on beds before lights out for the evening. The conversations opened up thoughts and feelings, some never given expression before, found a listener, a heart, an embrace and understanding over the weekend. No pity party here. No expectation or curiosity that ‘You’re not over all that yet?’ from good intentioned family or coworkers.
The weekend volunteers, whether breast cancer survivors or those committed to women on their journey, exuded in their words, actions, willingness, attitude, listening and every fiber of their beings unconditional acceptance and caring for each other and the participants. Just how much positive energy could a group generate? Call up NASA and see how many satellites were picking up beams of light and sparks of energy streaming out of Dunoir Valley that weekend.
Many more supporters came forward throughout the weekend in the most unexpected ways. Every time we went back to our cabins to change clothes, gather up an item for the next activity, wash up for a meal or turn in for the night, thoughtful treasures from across the country and a number from the international community waited to be discovered on our beds. Santa never worked overtime like this! A beautiful scarf, a metal water bottle, a glass beaded bracelet, a pillow with fishing imagery printed on soft flannel, a box of hand tied flies, handmade chocolate and more, all with a note to wish each of us well for the weekend and thereafter in our journeys. Giggles. Aaaaahs! Hand touched to the heart. Wide smiles. Sighs of appreciation for someone far away who wanted to make a contribution and make the weekend even more special than imagined. Now I pause each time I select one of these gifts for use, the reminder is there of the generosity, caring and hope from another individual that fuels survival.
As an artist I know the old cliché of ‘A picture is worth a thousand words.’ Guess what? Two diligent and accomplished photographers were busy day and night making sure that we had more than a thousand pictures as a record of the weekend, as well as, to keep alive and share the memories with family and friends back home. And they were great pictures of everyone and every activity that freed all of us up from hauling out our own ‘point and shoots’ so we could instead focus on the discussion or the casting. In fact we even kept a combo photographer/videographer busy keeping up with us and the activities. We were all having such a good time that the paparazzi attention did not go to our heads.
How could I forget? Casting for Recovery was initially developed by a surgeon fly fisherman who observed the motions of fishing were similar to the exercises that some of his cancer patients were using to gain mobility. Any genius knows that exercise disguised as fun, plus the bonus of being out in God’s Country anywhere, is much more successful than trying to work it in or procrastinate about working it into the daily routine.
So first after getting fitted for waders and boots, we were treated to one of the most engaging, informative and downright delightful presentations on insects. Everyone hopefully has a passion, and this presenter’s session was definitely one charged with energy and enthusiasm about six legged flying and diving, on the bank and in the water, creeping and crawling and about anything that a fish might be interested in chomping down on and calling dinner. Diagrams, actual specimens, hands on examination and handouts completed the thorough introduction to Bugs 101. The follow up test would come once out on our own. We had the guidelines for gathering, identifying and deciding what was for dinner to tempt that future hungry trout.
Getting the basics on the two most important knots and a practice session with easy to use heavy line was a fast paced and handy presentation to put in use later on the water. Since home, I have even used both knots in finishing up a wrap and hanging job on some personal tasks completely unrelated to fishing. Handy? Practice makes perfect.
How to unlearn the motions and emphasis gained by years of spinning rod conquests of fish in the wild? Rigged up rod in hand, demonstrations with clear concise guidelines by volunteer expert fishing guides and a practice session went a long way to understanding the mechanics of casting all complemented by a serious desire to take these skills home with me and put them to use. Even as a child, I remember watching the delight of a couple from New Mexico who would come to Yellowstone National Park each summer around the same time my family did. My Dad and I often successfully fished from shore while these two tubed fly fisher gals played, laughed and demonstrated such beauty and enjoyment with the process. Plus they caught trout! My Dad commented that women are usually much better at fly fishing than men. Of course, my Dad was a pro and caught fish when no one else was.
Wasting no time on Saturday afternoon, we were all off to put our lessons learned to good use. Bob and Mary Lou McGee were our hosts for a picnic lunch up the Dunoir Valley to the Lazy G Ranch at their summer home, a lovely cabin tucked in the landscape that they alternate with Washington DC during the rest of the year. In the near distance, a pond waited to test out the newly savvy fisher folk. Two then two more, each woman and a guide took a turn discovering the difference between casting on the lawn and getting snagged in the grass and the delight and finesse of catching and keeping a cooperative trout on the hook long enough to release it. Success all around and pictures of fisher woman, guide and trout to remember the experience long after the moment and the day’s adventure.
The lessons built on each other until graduation came in the form of an early Sunday morning jaunt to yet another beautiful setting at Lava Creek Ranch and our hosts, Lelio and Ana Ravagnani. The momentum and excitement increased as we all were joined by our personal expert champion fishing guide. They had come from all over the state for the day’s activities. Did someone mention that my guide sometimes looked like he walked off the pages of an outdoor magazine sporting what the well dressed fisherman would wear? None the less, he knew his stuff and his quiet carefully worded pointers were played off of raucous teasing. This only happened when I forgot that I was not hanging on to a spinning rig or when I was distracted by how beautiful it was to be out actually fishing and was making up new ways to hold the line! All the guides were eager for us to catch fish and have a good time. They helped each other with what flies were working and what spots were hot. The camaraderie among them was a delight to watch as sparing and joking seasoned the exchanges.
After a round of catch and release around the pond, the guide and I took off for the river to try another strategy with fish, flowing water and casting in spite of a variety of obstacles. After landing a Grayling much to my surprise, a small spotted Snake River Cutthroat was the next beauty to slip into the net. No camera, but lots of excitement. I pulled out a trout measuring tape that had been among the many gifts over the weekend and laid out 14 honest inches before returning the catch to the cold, clear stream. In the thrill of the catch, gear laid all around out on the bank as we high fived, laughed, chuckled, yelled (at least I did!), joked and both decided that it was a perfect moment for celebratory brewskies and pulled out of our vest the next best thing, bottles of water for long thirsty swings and another round of cheering and congratulations.
As it turned out, Mary had either used a Ouidija board, a horoscope or instinct in matching up each woman with a fishing guide for the morning. Everyone caught fish on a fly rod. Everyone has the photos to prove it. Everyone had a guide to meld with the personality, skill, interest, and excitement of the moment. Focus….wait….wiggle….pop……forget the Largemouth Bass yank up on the rod and YES! Bring’er in to shore and slip’er gracefully into the net. Release and high fives! Big smiles! Laughter! Let’s do it again! The trout was hooked and I am hooked on fly fishing! YES!
Actions speak louder than words, but the phases around the weekend have taken on a different meaning. The notion of ‘Casting for Recovery’ for me now is charged with a sense of preparation, focus, skill and finally just letting go with a release that brings whatever it may, whether it be an opportunity for another chance at a well placed fly, the thrill of catching a prize fish or a sweet Brookie, or a day well spent alive and present to surroundings. A metaphor for life? For the journey with breast cancer? For the acceptance of what life has to bring at that moment without worry, care, or concern about yesterday or tomorrow. Geez! Does fishing become a meditation? What would Buddha say?
One of the volunteers, a participant in last year’s CFR experience, emerged with a beautiful tattoo on her shoulder of a trout arching through a pink ribbon, a logo she developed around the idea of ‘rising to recovery.’ Each woman searches for what will bring hope and strength in the quest for survival after diagnosis with a disease that knows no strangers, a disease known by every family, group of friends or coworkers, members of a community, a disease oblivious of color, creed, social status, ethnicity, dreams for long life, visions for the future, personality, avocation or profession. Breast cancer sometimes for someone very young with children, sometimes with the prognosis of advanced stage, sometimes with the demand to change life style and question previous convictions. Sometimes. Sometimes. Sometimes. No matter the individual, we each may draw upon our inner strength, the expertise of our medical and complementary medical team, the support of our family and friends, tap into our personal beliefs and values and choose to rise, to rise up for recovery, survival and life.
During an afternoon return to the cabin, one of the gifts was a pale yellow scarf with a trout embroidered on one corner and the words ‘to fish is to hope.’ While my roommate and I decided to don our scarves to dress up for lunch, I somehow never managed to take mind off until bedtime. The phrase kept cycling through my mind as I replayed the many times I went fishing with my Dad. He taught me that there is fishing and that there is catching, but no matter because it a always means a time out with the beauty of nature, awakened senses, releasing the mind of clutter and renewing the spirit. The phrase catapulted me into another musing on mindfulness, the new catch word for pay attention to what you are doing when you are doing it because life is too important to waste fretting about the past which you cannot change and worrying about the future which has yet to come. But I do hope. I do hope that the experience of breast cancer which is very present in my life now will be a concern that I may release in time and move on to the next moment or the next cast or the next fish….or not. But that no matter what, the moment will be about acceptance and living and being alive.
So on to a phrase that evolved on my drive home from the weekend and came up as I was chatting away with a reporter for The Sheridan Press for a piece about CFR, ‘thriving for recovery.’ For someone who had gone for the entire seven months since diagnosis and had told less than one handful of people and primarily out of necessity (Those outpatient nurses frown on letting you drive your own car home right after surgery!) here I was on the Monday after the CFR experience ready to share how important and beneficial CFR was to women with breast cancer. By Friday, my picture was on the front page of an article spilling over to two pages which included Lori Hink, another participant from Sheridan County. Go big or go home? Maybe, but the weekend offered all of us time to be supported and cared for, to support and care for each other and to realize each in our own way the next step in our journey. For me it was a quantum leap to embracing and accepting what I had been through to date and know that I would not only survive, but thrive and live my life each day as fully as possible. Granted I had read a number of books that spoke of this notion in various ways, but the words on the page were just ink on paper. Now I was jazzed up again and ready to go and live a full rich life.
After all none of us will get out this alive. And even if I eventually die from cancer, I know that I can thrive while surviving. And in the meantime, as my Mother would always say to her worry wart Connecticut sister who fretted whenever my Mother went off on some adventuresome camping trip from Texas to the wilds of Yellowstone in the 1960’s, “Bears? Helen, you could get hit by a bus tomorrow right here in West Haven!”
After a morning of fishing, we all had much to appreciate and celebrate and we did just that on Sunday afternoon before we all scattered and went back to our communities. All the volunteers, fishing guides, ranch staff, sponsors and invited guests joined the participants for lunch before a round of thank yous orchestrated by Mary. As individuals, couples, and small groups took turns and came up to the front of the gathering to receive words of enthusiastic appreciation and thoughtful gifts, the audience clapped their recognition and cheered their approval.
Finally Mary lined up the participants face forward to her, while each fishing guide quietly filed in and took a place behind his or her fishing champion. Upon turning around the women were presented with a fully rigged fly fishing outfit. Okay! I lost it! I was beyond whelmed right over. Tears flooded my eyes and ran down my cheeks. Gasping sobs rose up from my chest. I couldn’t hug my guide enough. The kindness of strangers that had been extended upon arrival was now clearly the kindness of everyone who had made the weekend possible and would ensure that the joys and discoveries made would continue. We each were rigged with skills, guidelines, information, fishing experience, Yes! and catching plus now we had gear. Gear! Amazing and wonderful generosity. An announcement that Trout Unlimited would be meeting in August with plans to support this year’s CFR women and those from the past two years with insight and assistance in fishing in their respective areas added to the confidence that all would be able to continue the joys of fly fishing.
Possibly something more important than the experience of fishing and knowing it would continue, was the realization that in a short, intense time, we all had formed a caring community and had made connections that we would carry home with us. None of us would ever be alone in our journey. The shared experience would carry us home and through the days, months and years to come. ‘Life changing’ can sometimes be overused to the point of becoming trite. Sometimes leaning a bit toward the cynical, I may shrug my shoulders in doubt. But wait a minute! CFR did change my life, turned me around, opened me up, woke me up, and gave me a perspective through love, caring and shared understanding and experience that yes, Yes, Ma’am America! CFR was life traaaaaaaaansforming. I laughed and enjoyed myself in ways that I had not in months. I danced and sang. I slept well and prayed. I relaxed and listened. I was renewed in spirit!
Packed up and on my drive back over the Bighorns, I chuckled to myself as I slowed down whenever the road curved close to the river or crossed a bridge and then lingered a moment to look at the water and size up a good fishing spot with my new appraising eyes. With a fishing license still good for the day, if I hadn’t been trying to beat the darkness home, I was so tempted to hop out and just try a few casts to test the water. Instead, I savored the thoughts, the conversations, the stories, the jokes, the activities, the exchanges and also the friendships initiated over the past days. Incredible women. Generous people. Inspiring one and all. After all that I am humbled and most grateful to be counted among the participants for this year’s CFR Weekend.
In the weeks since CFR, emails with updates, news, contact lists of participants, volunteers, guides and sponsors pop up on my I Pad screen. CDs full of jpgs of the weekend come to my mailbox. A letter, membership and a list of women willing to share information about fishing in their respective areas of the state comes from Trout Unlimited. Thank you letters and emails go out to gift givers and all the many people that made the experience a reality.
I rig up and quietly go down to Piney Creek and watch for rings on the surface. I cast out on the water with a calmness and quiet that brings peace. Yes indeed, casting for recovery. I am alive, very much alive. Another cast and pause. I will survive. Another cast and pause. I will thrive this day…and pause to thrive another.
Thank you to all of you who brought Casting for Recovery Wyoming 2013 to fourteen women whose lives were forever changed for the better.
Statistics demonstrate currently that 1 in 8 women may be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. The disease has an impact on not only that one woman, but touches her family, her friends, her coworkers, and her community.
Love and support the women in your lives by encouraging them to do BSE (Breast Self-Exams) and regular mammograms as age appropriate. Men may also be diagnosed with breast cancer. Don’t be shy, Guys! Get the men in your life in the know. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Participate or contribute in your own way. Run a marathon. Familiarize yourself with BSE. Sit with a friend during treatment. Write a check. Schedule a mammogram. Take a surviving friend for coffee. Support Casting for Recovery!
Mary Jane Edwards