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Features - Posted May 26, 2017 noon
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Catch and Release

Why local cancer survivors are turning into fly fishermen

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A fly fisherman artfully casting a slender line across the surface of a mountain stream is one of the most poetic of outdoor activities. The graceful curve of the filament, the flowing water, the scenic natural backdrop – these give fly-fishing a widescreen, cinematic quality.

But actually doing it requires a much more narrow focus. Ankle-deep in a cool river, rhythmically commanding a rod and line and fly, a fly fisherman thinks of nothing but the present moment. The accuracy of each cast. The presentation of an artificial fly. The drift of a transparent leader above the head of a visible trout. For its adherents, in these moments, fly-fishing becomes a form of meditation. Medical research backs this up. Neurologists have praised the activity as a natural stress reliever, because fly-fishing requires rapt attention. In doing so, it calms the brain and gives participants a reset from daily thinking.

That has led to the growing popularity of a national fly-fishing nonprofit called Casting for Recovery, which guides breast cancer survivors on fly-fishing retreats. For women, the casting motion itself provides therapy for the shoulder and chest muscles impacted by mastectomies. But the meditative activity offers another kind of mental and emotional therapy.

Amarillo’s 24 Hours in the Canyon Cancer Survivorship Center has sponsored women to take part in Casting for Recovery retreats in New Mexico. But what about men? That’s the question Ryan Parnell, the center’s director, began to discuss this past fall with Dr. Kirk Coury, an endodontic surgeon in Amarillo. An avid fly-fisher, Coury believed men who were at various stages of survivorship – a term that includes people at every phase in the journey, from diagnosis to remission – could also benefit from the activity.

“Casting for Recovery was the incubation,” Coury says. “We have so much respect for that organization. But there’s nothing really for men to do.”

So Coury and Parnell teamed up to create their own local organization. In January of this year, they founded Reel & Heal. Its mission is to “help men in the cancer recovery process by introducing them to the healing powers of fly-fishing.”

Reel & Heal held its first event in early March, inviting around a dozen cancer survivors to River Falls, a private community east of Lake Tanglewood, on the north end of Palo Duro Canyon. Each survivor was paired with an experienced fly fisherman as a guide for the day, and together the men enjoyed a beautiful natural setting and a catch-and-release pond freshly stocked with trout.

One of those men was Ronald Mashburn, a 70-year-old survivor of prostate cancer. Diagnosed in 2006, Mashburn chose to have a radical prostatectomy – removal of the entire prostate gland. “We caught it early so my experience was successful,” he says. But prostate removal leaves men with significant side effects, including urinary incontinence and erectile dysfunction. “There are always some things you have to live with afterwards. I deal with that day to day.”

Mashburn isn’t the only member of his family to battle cancer. His wife, Deanna, is a 14-year survivor of breast cancer. Their son, Sean, died last year after a battle with osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that developed in his jaw. “I’m still dealing with that, too,” Mashburn says.

A full-time technology instructor at Frank Phillips College, Mashburn retired after 32 years in the Texas A&M system and had experimented with some self-taught fly-fishing in the past. He says the event proved to be educational, especially after he partnered with expert volunteer Bryan Collins, a local periodontist. The two had met in the past when Collins provided Mashburn’s dental implants. “He worked with me and I thought I would just be learning a few tricks,” Mashburn says. “But it turned out I learned a whole bunch of new fly-fishing techniques from him. Everything from learning to tie knots to how to use different types of flies and what to look for.”

Mashburn ended up landing four trout, four crappie, and the first bass he’d ever caught on a fly rod. “I had a pretty successful day,” he says. “There’s nothing like being outdoors and dealing with nature to make you see the perspective of things.”

According to Coury, that’s the core therapy he was hoping Reel & Heal could provide participants. “You can’t think of anything else,” he explains about fly-fishing. “All you can think about is what’s happening while you’re fishing. In that lies the magic – being able to totally disconnect from any personal problems or issues, whether it’s emotional or physical or mental, and just focus on what’s going on.”

Parnell says much of the magic came from the location itself, as the men fished quiet waters below red-rock canyon cliffs. “It was gorgeous,” he says. “It doesn’t even feel like you’re in the Panhandle. And they’re catching some of the largest rainbow trout that they’ll ever catch on a fly rod.”

Beyond the successful outing and the location, the retreat gave men the opportunity to spend quality time with other men who were facing similar circumstances. “It’s hard sometimes to get men to be involved in activities we do,” Parnell says. The Cancer Suvivorship Center offers a variety of support groups for all ages, including book clubs, art clubs, nutrition classes, exercise classes, and other wellness activities. But a majority of participants tend to be women, who may value socialization more than their male counterparts. “Men are sometimes difficult. They’re tough and don’t feel the need to open up,” he says. “But cancer is one of those diseases where sharing experiences – this is what I did or this is how I coped – makes a big difference. Hearing from another guy who’s been through the same cancer, or just cancer in general, can provide some reassurance.”

You can’t force those conversations to happen. But you can facilitate them with a purposeful retreat. While pursuing a relaxing activity in a beautiful place, those conversations tend to happen organically. “When you get cancer survivors together they really do open up, regardless of whether it’s men or women,” says Parnell. “In this case it was nice to see men talking about their illness or things they’ve been through and how they did what they did.”

Some of those conversations were one-on-one, among a cancer survivor and his fishing guide. But many of them happened during a lunch break when the entire group came together. Parnell explains that cancer survivorship covers a broad spectrum of time. “To many people, when you say the word ‘cancer survivor,’ that means you are 10 years or five years out of treatment,” he says. “Actually, the definition of a cancer survivor is from the moment of diagnosis. They’re surviving with cancer all the way throughout their treatment and beyond.”

The men participating in the retreat were at various stages of the journey. Some had been recently diagnosed. Others, like Mashburn, were several years into remission. Coury says the differences don’t matter much. “You have some people who are terminal. Some that have survived it and kicked it. Some that are in the middle of treatment and don’t know what their outcome will be,” he says. “You’re putting all these people into one pot. For some reason, everybody feels better – about each other, about themselves. It gives hope for their future.”

Part of that hope came from Bob Attaway, himself a fly fisherman and survivor of prostate cancer. Attaway presented a short talk that related the art of fly-fishing with the process of dealing with a cancer diagnosis. “I didn’t want to bore these guys at all,” says Attaway, a groups and recovery pastor at Hillside Christian Church. “But are there certain principals with fly-fishing that also apply to cancer survivorship and recovery?”

It turns out there are. Fly fishermen must trust their equipment and their guides. Cancer patients must put their faith in chemotherapy, radiation and their doctors. Both groups must approach the process with patience and also have to relinquish control. “In fishing, I can see a rock and know there’s a fish sitting right there ready for my fly,” Attaway says. “I’m going to put my fly as close to that rock as I can get it. But even if I have a great cast and get it right where I want, I have no control of what happens under the water. I have no control over whether the fish is feeding or not. With cancer, it hits you and you’re not in control.”

He told the fly fishermen that turning over control was an essential aspect of the journey. This can be a struggle for men, Parnell says, especially those who are accustomed to being in charge or are proudly self-sufficient. “From the moment of diagnosis, survivors turn their control over to their treating facility,” he says. “You have to realize that someone else is in control. But ultimately their control is what’s best for the patient.”

For survivors like Mashburn, the retreat was exactly what he needed. He is already a member of the Center’s prostate cancer survivor group, but says the retreat’s activities and atmosphere offered a different kind of opportunity. “Something about talking to other men and being in that environment opens you up to discussing things a bit more than in other situations,” he says. “Some there were fighting it more severe than me, so you feel how blessed you are when you listen to some of the other stories.”

Though the young organization has only had one retreat so far, Coury says additional gatherings are on the horizon. “It’s still evolving,” Coury says, but he looks forward to introducing more survivors to the meditative art of fly-fishing. Among other things, that means recruiting additional fly-fishing experts (see below).

Regardless of the destination or people involved, Parnell promises Reel & Heal will always focus on providing men an enjoyable few hours of fishing. “Survivors miss a lot of fun things when they’re going through treatment. This was a great opportunity for them to be engaged in something that’s really fun.”

Get Involved

The Texas Panhandle’s proximity to world-class fly-fishing in New Mexico and Colorado has resulted in a significant community of passionate local fly fishermen. Reel & Heal hopes to hear from as many of them as possible as they plan upcoming events. “Fly-fishing enthusiasts can definitely get in touch with us as we do more of these,” says Parnell. “We’d love other fly fishermen to volunteer and give back and share their skills.”

Contact Parnell at the Cancer Survivorship Center by calling 806-331-2400 or emailing ryanparnell@hchfamarillo.org.

About the Cancer Survivorship Center

The 24 Hours in the Canyon Cancer Survivorship Center began with an annual 24-hour bicycling event that raised funds to provide mammograms for women without insurance. Eventually it led to the establishment of a full-fledged community center built around free services for Texas Panhandle adults, children and family members during and after cancer treatment. “Nothing like this was being offered,” Parnell says. The Center began in 2015 and is funded by the 24 Hours in the Canyon bicycling event and the Harrington Cancer and Health Foundation. All donations are tax-deductible.

24hoursinthecanyon.org
hchfamarillo.org

by Jason Boyett

Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.
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