During the small amount of time that I’ve been writing about breast cancer, I have come across numerous groups that provide support to women who are dealing with breast cancer. One, however, has stood out to me in a unique way: Casting for Recovery (CfR). It’s a unique twist on a breast cancer retreat. It’s also enjoyed great success in fulfilling its mission to help women.
Perhaps my interest in CfR stems from my own love of fishing. Perhaps it was the group’s commitment to improving the quality of life of women. Maybe it was the unique combination of fly fishing and healing. Regardless, I knew the breast cancer retreat offered by Casting for Recovery was something that more women should learn about.
So, I reached out to them.
Casting for Recovery connected me with Wendy Gawlik, an alumna of their program. Wendy now works with them as an executive assistant. She graciously provided me with some information about what the organization does. She also shared her own personal experiences in its breast cancer retreat program.
An Alumna’s Perspective
Wendy first heard about Casting for Recovery during a local news broadcast about the organization. For several years, her only involvement with breast cancer was through her volunteer work. However, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, she “became more aware of other organizations, such as Casting for Recovery.”
During her retreat, Wendy found that it “took me out of my day-to-day life…. It took me outside of myself.” The experience was a great way for her to learn a new sport while also doing something for herself. She continues to enjoy fly fishing to this day.
“We learned, laughed, and cried while being supported by an amazing volunteer staff,” Gawlik says about her experience. She tells women, “It will be an experience you have never had before! You will leave with thirteen new friends.”
A Bit of Background
Casting for Recovery was founded in Manchester, Vermont in 1996. One of its founders is Gwenn Perkins Bogart, a professional fly fisher. Dr. Benita Walton, a breast cancer reconstructive surgeon, is the other founder. They sought to create a new program to help women with breast cancer.
The program provides free fly fishing retreats to women of all ages, who are in any stage of breast cancer treatment or recovery. These two-and-a-half day retreats focus on empowering participants. An equally important focus is to improve their overall emotional and physical wellbeing.
Since CfR’s first retreat, the organization has been repeatedly endorsed by several psychosocial and medical experts. Additionally, it has inspired international efforts in New Zealand, Canada, the UK/Ireland, and Australia. Over the years, more than 7,500 women have been helped through over 550 retreats.
How the Breast Cancer Retreat Works
Women who are interested in participating in a CfR retreat can apply online. In order to be eligible, women must apply for a retreat within their service region. They may be in any stage of dealing with breast cancer. The organization also maintains a retreat in Eastern Pennsylvania that women are eligible to attend if they do not have a retreat in their area. It is possible to create a new retreat program. However, Wendy Gawlik noted that the process “takes roughly two years from start to the first retreat.” She also mentions that it involves everything from finding financial support to creating a caring team to run the program.
Out of all the eligible applicants for each retreat, fourteen women are chosen at random. Twenty alternates are also chosen. Retreats are free for participants. Women must, however, cover any travel costs to get to their retreat, along with the cost of a fishing license. Casting for Recovery provides participants with all the fishing equipment they may need.
The breast cancer retreats feature plenty of time for fly fishing. There are also several other beneficial activities. They “offer a medical education session and the Evening Circle, which discusses the emotional effects of breast cancer,” explains Gawlik. “The retreats are staffed by a psychosocial facilitator and a medical facilitator… [and] all fly fishing instructors, retreat leaders, program coordinators, hospitality, and psychosocial and medical volunteers have been trained by the national staff at a training weekend.”
Women who tend to be shy can also benefit greatly from the retreats. As a shy person myself, I know that certain activities like interacting with lots of strangers can be a bit daunting. But don’t let that discourage you. Shy or not, CfR participants “benefit greatly from being in a supportive and caring environment with women who have been through breast cancer as well,” says Gawlik.
There is a unique focus on support, fishing, and camaraderie at Casting for Recovery retreats. This has a profound impact on many of the women who attend. According to post-retreat evaluations, all past attendees would recommend this breast cancer retreat.
Additionally, more than 96 percent felt connected to their fellow participants. They felt that they had gained a new group of supportive friends. Meanwhile, over 92 percent of women completed their retreats feeling more accepting of themselves. They also felt more able to cope with their situation than before the retreat. Around 70 percent of CfR retreat attendees had never been to a support group. Therefore, these changes can be very helpful.
As Wendy Gawlik puts it, “CfR is a quality of life program…. After you have finished your treatment, your family and friends assume that you will carry on from where you left off, and this is not the case. You are no longer heading towards your goal of a cure, but [are] now dealing with the thought of ‘What now?’ CfR retreats are focused on survivorship and how to adjust to your new normal.”