We came together on a small, quiet, pristine lake fed by the Pigeon River in North Carolina. We were an unlikely group, with differing personalities, old and young, Republican, Democrat, and some who just didn’t care. Many with hair, a few without. An odd mix, with our commonality defined by 2 characteristics: being women and having cancer.
Fifteen of us mixed with an equal amount of guides, advisors, and administrators volunteering their time, recognizing the abundant peace brought to all who dare step outdoors. Our prescription for battle—as varied as our taste in clothes. Several of us had been confined to the indoors for weeks or months by those necessary treatments our medical teams had advised. We were eager to get on with life without the weight of cancer.
Cancer itself can feel like an unending hell. Sometimes, for no logical reason, we fail to remember that one day we will escape this. For those of you who have not been part of this club, allow me to explain. Beginning on day 1, your days become a whirlwind of new doctors, surgeons, words you will not recognize, medications, confusion, instruction, a lot of time spent lost in long, endless hallways searching, loud machines, recommendations, advice, and prayer.
In our group, on this glorious weekend, we understood that we had all completed Life’s-reflection Project long ago at the time of diagnosis or prognosis. It is part of the journey that no one can avoid. We had concluded that particular task so thoroughly that our own reflections could easily be cast back to us, making some of us into crazy women.
We set aside our fears, anguish, and pain, along with other wounds. We breathed deeply; we sang and danced, rejoicing in this opportunity for self-preservation. I opened my eyes and was astonished by the wonder of life.
It is rare to have sitting before you a perfect day; more unusual is to have 3 days of perfection. This is what 15 cancer survivors were given through Casting Carolinas, a program that provides comprehensive support and education for women who are surviving cancer, including nature retreats (www.castingcarolinas.com). We set aside our fears, anguish, and pain, along with other wounds. We breathed deeply; we sang and danced, rejoicing in this opportunity for self-preservation.
This experience showed me a path to spirituality without doctrine or dogma, no one and all-powerful, a way quickly recognized once I established my oneness with the river. I opened my eyes and was astonished by the wonder of life.
For some, their trauma sits on the surface, so near that only unfettered joy can wash it away. Fleeting, as the joy is, trauma can return in a flash. The sound of a specific type of buzzer can instantly bring me back into the MRI machine; the smell of surgical gloves can return some to the operating room. When this happens, my mind slows to a confused, fearful state, while a salty, bitter taste creeps into my mouth.
Warriors Fishing with Grace
We were here to learn to manage our fear and to bond as warriors. We respected the quiet, the beauty, and the grace that fly-fishing offered. Some came to heal, some to adjust to their losses, and others for distraction. Cancer can be a gift given to those who learn best through being skunked. Cancer showed me how to take living to an enhanced level. I need only be the person that I was meant to be. I took the poet Mary Oliver’s words as my guide: “Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
We learned it’s okay to search our minds and find those elements that fail to feed the soul. Those are tossed aside. We, people with cancer, favor only those people, places, and careers that serve us well. We are scraping every last drop out of the jar of life, and for these 3 days, the taste was heavenly.
The Good, the Clear, and the Healthy
Fly-fishing requires perceptive observations of the subtle details around you. The flow of the river, the small ponds where trout feed, which bugs are hatching, and what insects are landing on the surface, the width of the river, the wind direction. All of these direct your casting.
To the outside observer, an excellent cast can look like ballet. To the participant, it isn’t about the fish; it is the sound of the river rippling over your boots and the rocks, the whispering breeze through the trees, the sun sprinkling diamonds on the river, and the birds reminding us to sing.
On our final day on the river, I attached my fly to the end of my tippet and thought, “This fly represents hope, and hope is priceless.” I paused my casting and set the reel on a rock, leaning the rod against my leg, holding on tightly. I glanced downstream.
All these women standing or sitting in the river, at this moment, are in their flow with their hopes riffling over rocks. They’re clearing out the crap, leaving only the good, the clear, and the healthy.
Just before lunch, an eagle flew along the river, over each of our heads, and one by one, we looked up and yelled, “Eagle!” watching it soar, knowing that our souls were being lifted to a new place.