It was a birthday Lisa Abel will never forget.
She turned 49 on July 19, 2016. It should have been a good day, but it wasn’t. Not at all. That was the day she was told she had breast cancer.
Devastating? Yes, but Abel has dealt with it, and even thrived. How? Partly, at least, because of fly fishing.
That might seem odd, but it is true. Abel discovered Casting for Recovery, a two-decade old national retreat program whose mission is to enhance the quality of life for women with breast cancer. That’s just what it did for her.
"The day I put a fly rod in my hand I knew I’d never put it down," she said. "Standing in the water made me forget about my cancer, gave me a renewed connection to nature, and literally washes away every worry I may have downstream. I’m a better person as a ‘fly girl.’ Now I just need to learn how to catch those fish. I wouldn’t have it any other way."
Abel enjoyed her experience at last year’s Casting for Recovery retreat at Tailwater Lodge on the Salmon River so much that she became an outreach volunteer. She spends a good deal of time spreading the word and recruiting participants for this year’s program, which will take place from June 28 to June 30. She was a guest speaker at the annual banquet of the Mohawk Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited recently, and has several other engagements coming up.
A Whitesboro resident who grew up in an outdoor family in Poland, Abel didn’t do all that much fishing as a youngster, but after her radiation and chemotherapy treatments were completed in December 2016, she was looking for a way to forget about it all. She remembered Lester Holt doing a segment on Casting for Recovery on NBC Nightly News, did some research, and applied right away. A few months later, she found herself standing in the Salmon River, waving a stick, trying to catch a trout.
First she and her fellow attendees were given a few classroom sessions on entomology, knot-tying, and safety, plus casting instruction and more. Gear was provided for the 14 women, who ranged in age from the mid-40s to 80. The river was high that weekend, and the fishing was tough, but a few trout were caught. Not by Abel, but she was okay with that.
"What I left the retreat with is hope," she said. "I had the opportunity to meet women who were 10 and 12 years beyond diagnosis and living productive lives."
But why fly fishing?
"The motion of the fly casting is similar to exercises that are proscribed after treatment," Abel said. "It gives survivors a new activity. Most never fly fished before. The retreat helped address quality-of-life issues. And fly fishing gives you a reprieve from the everyday challenges and stress of cancer."
Again, Abel didn’t catch any trout that day, although she did on a later trip, and she is working hard at getting better. The experience, though, is one she describes as "powerful," and it turned her into a wildly enthusiastic advocate for the program. She wants others to share in it.
"When I was standing in the Salmon River, I was at peace," she said. "I was enjoying the outdoors, enjoying what I was doing. It didn’t take long for me to figure out I was going to hang on to this for a long time.
"I like being outside in nature. I might not be catching a lot of fish, but I look good in waders! It’s very therapeutic. It is relaxing. I feel comfortable in the water. … It’s changed my life."
Cancer has had a huge impact on Abel, obviously. What might not be obvious is that some of that impact has been positive.
"Every day is special," she said. "I don’t take things for granted. The birthdays become more important."
And Casting for Recovery has had a huge impact, as well.
"This program changes lives," Abel said. "I’m one of the lives it changed."
Applications for this year’s retreat are available at castingforrecovery.org and are due by Thursday, April 19. There is no charge, and equipment is provided.
Write to John Pitarresi at 60 Pearl Street, New Hartford, N.Y. 13413 or email@example.com or call him at 315-724-5266.