Fly fishing retreats aid breast cancer combatants
Learning to fly fish liberated Sherry Barnhart, an 18year breast cancer combatant, but it also inspired her to liberate others.
Barnhart, a respiratory therapist at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, shares the gift of fly fishing through Casting for Recovery, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping those with breast cancer confront and survive the disease through fly fishing.
She talked about it Monday during the monthly meeting of the Arkansas Fly Fishers at Whole Hog Cafe on Cantrell Road in Little Rock.
Casting For Recovery was organized in 1996 in Manchester, Vt., by a reconstructive breast surgeon and a professional fly fisherman that recognized the therapeutic power of fishing. The organization’s primary vehicle is a fishing retreat which it holds in every state.
To date, Casting for Recovery has held 550 retreats that have served 7,500 women. Arkansas/Oklahoma will host 14 women at one of 55 retreats this year. Barnhart said the organization is looking for a leadership team to organize a separate Oklahoma chapter to hold a separate retreat that will empower an additional 14 women.
Besides the cost of transportation, everything for the retreat is free, and the accommodations are plush. The last Arkansas/Oklahoma retreat, for example, was at Dave and Emily Whitlock’s ranch near Tahlequah, Okla. The one that Barnhart first attended as a participant was at Gaston’s Resort at Lakeview.
“The organization hopes to give them one weekend of freedom,” Barnhart said. “A breast cancer survivor really doesn’t have any freedom. It’s always there. The retreats are places where they are free from the stresses of home, free from the stresses of the workplace and free from the stresses of the disease.”
Fly fishing is the lure, but the retreats double as support networks among people from all walks of life that all have one major thing in common.
“Seventy percent of the women that go to the retreats tell us they’ve never had any type of support group before,” Barnhart said. “When you go through something that life changing, one of the best medicines is finding someone that has walked that road before you and survived that journey.”
When Barnhart was finally selected to attend a retreat, she had completed breast cancer treatment many years before. She’d endured a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. She had enthusiastically supported Race for the Cure and other programs, but like other cancer survivors, she reached a point where she was ready to put it behind her and eschew reminders, regardless of their noble intentions. She tried to turn down her invitation, but Casting for Recovery would not allow it.
Barnhart doesn’t cotton to being bossed around, but she wasn’t getting out of this one.
“I marched straight over to the Sunglasses Hut in Park Plaza and bought a pair of Maui Jims that I paid way too much for,” Barnhart said. “I thought, ‘If I’m going to do this, I’m going to have some good shades.’”
When the retreat ended, she was transformed.
An Indiana native, Barnhart fished as a child with her father on the Ohio River, but that was perch jerking with a bobber and pole. Fly fishing was an entirely new experience. Experts taught her and the others to cast, how to tie flies and other essential skills.
Like many other participants, Barnhart was initially self-conscious, which is normal when you’re well outside your comfort sphere.
“It was on the White River, and I was just trying not to fall down in those boots.”
The guide showed her fish in the water and told her to cast to them. She caught one, but the guide forgot his net. Barnhart didn’t take that well, either.
“I was like, ‘Are you kiddin’ me? This is probably the one fish I’m going to catch, and you forgot the net? Seriously?’”
The guide rushed over to borrow somebody else’s net while Barnhart battled her fish. She landed it and …
“I was hooked,” Barnhart said. “When I got that one fish, I didn’t worry anymore about how I casted. I got a fish! When it was time to leave, I didn’t want to go.”
Now, Barnhart continues as a volunteer in hopes that others may be hooked, as well.
“I want to be involved so that other women could be inspired as much as I was,” Barnhart said.
For more information, visit castingforrecovery.org or call (888) 553-3500.