|Cover Story||Plant Life||On Fitness||Northwest Living||Taste||Now & Then|
WRITTEN BY PAULA BOCK
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BETTY UDESEN
It's in riffles rich with oxygen. In moss clinging to stones. In gnats that touch and go. Most of all, it's in the deep shadows under ledges where the rainbow trout hang.
Speckled rainbows can be hard to spot, especially when it's sunny, but the fly-fishing masters who've volunteered to lead this all-women retreat swear the fish are there, a native species that's survived since the Ice Age.
Cast. Drift. Pause. Strip it in. Cast again. Warm breeze. No nibbles yet.
No matter, the river flows.
This stretch of sparkling stream is about as far as it gets from an oncologist's waiting room or an antiseptic operating room or all the other indoor places where, if you have breast cancer, you're knocked out, strapped down, cut open, injected with chemicals, tattooed with dye, blasted with radioactive rays until, you hope you really, really hope the cancer cells are gone, leaving you . . . alive.
But not the same.
This year's retreat, the second annual in Washington State, was held at the Sleeping Lady resort in Leavenworth, a quiet spot nestled in a curvaceous gray mountain. There is a pool, a hot tub and time to nap, plus gourmet meals, lessons on how to tie Woolly Buggers, lectures on the life cycles of caddis flies and trout. The volunteer staff includes a nurse, a counselor and experts in casting, fly-tying and fundraising. Most met through Northwest Women Fly Fishers, and each has been touched by breast cancer through a close relative or friend. This is their gift to survivors. A new sport. A chance to get away from families and chores and daily worries.
The dozen participants range in age from 41 to 72. They've come from Seattle, Bellevue, Kent, Yakima, Ephrata, Kingston and Mount Vernon. They are moms, grandmothers, receptionists, homemakers, nurses, teachers, administrators, a therapist and a software developer, chosen by random lottery out of 35 who applied.
One woman was diagnosed less than a year ago, another is nine years out, the rest fall in between. The disease makes them feel fearful, grateful, angry, strong, vulnerable, joyful or loving, depending on which survivor you ask and which day she's describing.
"To fish is to hope," says Susan Balch, national program director and fly-fishing instructor.
Survivors know about hope. This weekend, they hope to catch fish.
The motion of casting mimics exercises doctors prescribe after surgery to stretch and rebuild muscle. The goal is to prevent "frozen shoulder" and lymphedema, painful swelling caused by a dangerous accumulation of lymphatic fluid. Physical therapists teach survivors to "wall walk," the practice of literally walking fingers up a wall, spider-like, to regain mobility. Other exercises are similar to British calisthenics, and about as exciting.
"Yeah, you've had a mastectomy, but why not have fun in nature?" says Seline Skoug, Casting For Recovery's executive director. "Why not do it outside?"
"Hey!" yells Jami Merriman, waving at passing cars from the river's edge and road's end, where her group is gearing up to fish. Jami is obviously delighted with her outfit: chest-high waders, felt-bottomed boots, a multipocketed fishing vest, a fluffy chest patch adorned with hand-tied flies.
She also wears a brand new silver locket. The filigree lid flips open to reveal a watch. "My gift of time," she says. Her mother gave her the locket to celebrate her last radiation treatment, which is scheduled for the following day. Tomorrow. Monday. Another bend in the river. Today is today. Sunday morning on a clear, rapid stream.
Jami selects a dry fly crafted from tawny elk hair and buttercup-colored fuzz. She secures it to her line with the clinch knot she's just learned to tie. She goops on floatant so the Woolly Bugger will ride the water's surface. She wades into the river. She beams.
"It's a good day," she says, casting her line upstream.
"If you go back 15 to 20 years, a lot of surgeons and medical oncologists would say: Just take it easy. Don't stress yourself," says Julie Gralow, an oncologist at the University of Washington and co-author of "Breast Fitness."
"Now we've reversed that. We're saying: The more active you are, the better you're going to recover. If you get some exercise, you'll have less fatigue and less depression."
Gralow is co-founder and medical director of Team Survivor Northwest, an exercise and fitness program for women affected by cancer. Team Survivor is among a profusion of such programs, many specifically designed for breast-cancer survivors. Around here, survivors can take free yoga classes, train for triathlons, climb Mount Rainier, learn to knit, paddle dragon boats, drop in to various centers for counseling, quilting or coffee.
Why breast cancer and not, say, esophageal cancer? Or Crohn's disease?
Demographics. Politics. Timing.
If you're a baby boomer, and a woman, there's a 1-in-8 chance you'll get breast cancer and a 75 percent chance you'll survive. (If the cancer was treated before spreading, your chances increase to 96 percent.) About 2 million breast-cancer survivors, including men, are living in the United States.
Other cancers don't have such a high rate of survival. Other diseases don't have such a large or specific demographic.
Inspired, in part, by programs for people living with HIV/AIDS, the breast-fitness movement combines elements from the health-club '90s, the support-group '80s and the feminist '70s. This gives a slightly retro feel, as if it should have evolved sooner.
Yet less than a decade ago, breast-health advocates were fighting for more money for basic research. In 1992, Congress allocated $93 million for breast-cancer research. Scientists and advocates, including noted surgeon Susan Love, lobbied for quadruple that amount. They were turned down.
Then came the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas debacle. In its wake, Love writes in her "Breast Book," several congressmen needed to rehabilitate their reputation regarding women. And one longtime supporter of breast-cancer research was looking for an opportunity. Sen. Tom Harkin, who had lost two sisters to breast cancer, noticed a Defense Department line item for $25 million to buy mammogram machines. Why not increase that tenfold and use the money for breast-cancer research?
Congress passed the measure, 89-4.
FIRST STAGE of fly fishing: You want to catch the most fish.
Second stage: You want to catch the biggest fish.
Third stage: You want to catch the most challenging fish.
Whatever stage, it's imperative to tell a good fish story. A good fish story fosters camaraderie and healthy competition, and usually prompts listeners to chime in with their own bit of buffoonery or braggadocio.
A good survivor story is similar in structure. Except instead of competition, it arouses compassion. Instead of tall talk, it triggers belly laughs or tears or both.
What else would you expect when a bunch of survivors and anglers linger around a long wooden table laden with great food?
Lee Burns talking with Nancy Edwards about having lymph nodes removed: You were sore? I was so NUMB!
Elizabeth Rogers: You don't have the little sparklies? You know, where it just GRABS you?
At that, Elizabeth's eyes flash and she grins and grabs her ribs. She's a quilting grandma and a champion storyteller. Last year, her "lost summer," she stitched an entire quilting block during a month in the hospital. "I had three surgeries: A bilateral, that's a double, 14 lymph nodes taken out on each side, that's 28, then I got staph so I had to go back to surgery. I told the surgeon, You GLUED me too tight!"
Elizabeth is from Ephrata and of an era when ladies never divulged exactly how old they were, though she's quick to reveal she decided against a reconstruction because, "You see, at my age, what difference does it make? My husband is perfectly content. I didn't have the problems some other girls did with husbands."
Yet, you know what he did before Elizabeth came home from the hospital? He found out she'd need a sports bra on which to pin her four drainage tubes, so he went to Wal-Mart, on his own, to buy it! Walked right into the lingerie department, plucked the first bra off the closest rack, paid, and zoomed out of there.
"It was black! 44DD!! Big enough to fit over my fishing vest!" Elizabeth screams with laughter. "He didn't know they came in SIZES!"
Survivor stories segue to fish stories and then to fish-survivor stories.
The sad tales are murmured softly to those sitting closest. Friends who died. Husbands who left or were ditched. Estranged children. Botched reconstructions. Failed marrow transplants.
The upbeat stories, and there are many, are loud enough for everyone to hear.
Susan Olivier-Hirasawa, from Leschi, tells of a neighbor with ovarian cancer who was given a few months 20 years ago and is still going so strong she recruits survivor friends to model in an annual runway fundraiser. "There have been many ways cancer has changed me," Susan says, "but you're still not going to get me into a fashion show!"
Louise Harris, of Kent, tells how fish became her life sign. Lying on the table during her biopsy last year, she focused on a fish mobile bobbing overhead. The nine fish kept her mind from panicking about her body. The next day, pre-op in Providence Medical Center's waiting room, Louise was enchanted by an aquarium. "The fish were speaking to me, in a very peaceful way, saying this is a new adventure you're getting ready to embark on. It felt so good to hold onto something that was powerful but gentle, too. Even after the lumpectomy, when they said the tumor was larger than they thought, nine centimeters, it felt like, OK, I can handle that. Y'know, this breast did a valiant job. It really held all that cancer, didn't let it spread to the rest of my body, only three lymph nodes. This breast has served me well and it was time to say goodbye to it."
Before the mastectomy, her daughter gave her a fighting fish. Louise named it Vibrant. A friend had told her within a year she'd be vibrant again.
And then there's Joan Wulff, a former ballerina and star of the video, "Dynamics of Casting." She swirls a fly rod in each hand, casting twin lines in a choreographed dance while wearing an evening gown.
The most wondrous story of the weekend, however, is about a survivor, new to fly fishing, who, at last year's Long Island retreat, caught 12 fish.
ONE NIGHT, under the stars, Susan, Joanie Mass and Leslie Lemley luxuriate in the hot tub (not great for lymphedema, but you gotta live), chatting about art classes, backyard chickens and how it's such a relief to replace stale cancer vocabulary with a fly-fishing lexicon.
Tippet, clinch knot, rod (not pole!), and of course, flies with fabulous names: Muddler Minnows, Blue Wing Olives, Parachute Adams, Palomino Midges, Sparkle Duns, each spun from snippets of chenille, rabbit-ear fur and feather.
The words are much more fun than sentinel node, Neupogen, white count, Taxotere, cytotoxin, estrogen-positive tumor, Adriamycin, Groshong line, metastasize, Tamoxifen, portacath.
The survivors pull aside their bathing-suit straps. They compare scars left by lumpectomies, lymphectomies, mastectomies and portable catheters inserted to keep toxic chemotherapy concoctions from burning up their veins.
"When I first saw, I thought: Looks like a grenade went off under my armpit!" Susan says.
Actually, it doesn't. The wounds, once angry, have healed as calm scars.
"Physically, you recover quickly," Joanie says. "But I've heard it can take up to five years to recover emotionally."
Now, protected by the dark and warm water, it seems safe to let fears surface.
Leslie, a nurse, says she was not a timid person before cancer, but now, every leg twinge or sore throat or tired afternoon makes her wonder: Has IT come back? Am I dying?
For Joanie, what's scary is "normal" life ahead. Treatment felt safer. The cancer, she'd told herself, wouldn't dare return while she was on chemo. Now, months go by between appointments. After five years of Tamoxifen, she'll see her doctor only for an annual check-up.
Joanie: Once a year? How can that be? It's cutting the umbilical cord! Then what?
Susan: Then we'll have a party.
Joanie: I'm not waiting that long! Party next month!
The rods are lustrous graphite, 8 1/2 feet long, midflex, four-weight, Orvis Silver Label TLs with blue chevrons and sweetly tapered cork handles. They weigh 2 3/4 ounces and, assembled, vibrate in the hand like a living thing.
Much of the mystery of fly fishing must dwell in these magic wands and in the mantric motion of casting.
Perhaps it's because when you're casting, it's difficult, and undesirable, to think about much else.
"Your mind empties out," says Tanya Lee Parieaux, a survivor and fishing novice. "You're oblivious to everything that's going on around you."
She wrenches herself away from her rod to list things that might otherwise clutter her head: Phone calls to return, events to organize, agendas to juggle, meetings to schedule, arthritis, medication, money, questions about the best way to keep herself healthy.
Six weeks after her mastectomy, Tanya left her marriage. "I wanted to live," she says. "God was giving me a second chance, and I needed to make drastic changes to ensure I would stay alive." She had no medical insurance or job skills, but she knew how to knit, and that gave her enough time, and money, to reinvent herself. Now she leads Threads for Life, a knitting support program for Northwest cancer survivors and their caregivers, and works as affiliate coordinator for the Susan G. Komen Foundation.
To make a strong cast forward, you need to first cast back. The line unfurls behind you, the wrong direction, but then, with a flick of your forearm, you launch the arc forward, wherever you want it to go.
In "Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis," Howell Raines, reigning executive editor of The New York Times, explains the odd behavior men, at middle age, exhibit toward women and fish. He calls it a reaction to a vague fear of death "facing the black dog."
In a really intense midlife crisis, which is the only kind worth having, he writes, you should count on five years of steadily intensifying anxiety or depression or some satanic combination of emotional torment.
Five years? Watching these survivors cast, it's hard to imagine any of them moping around that long.
Of the bunch, the smoothest caster is Kathy Blesie, a Kingston mom with natural beauty and an artificial hip. After her mastectomy in October 1998, Kathy decided to get back into shape, eventually running 10 miles a day and losing 50 pounds she'd gained over the years, homeschooling her kids and nurturing everyone but herself.
"What's scariest, for me, was wondering if I was going to die not being the person I want to be. I didn't like not feeling strong, not feeling healthy. That's when I started exercising."
Then, last November, the cancer returned to her leg. She had a hip replacement this spring. She went to Hawaii to inhale the warm smell of flowers, the shapes of the clouds, the sight of little birds trying to outrun the surf. It was beautiful and bittersweet. She came home and started organizing an outdoorsy support group for children of parents who have chronic diseases.
"You think you have so much control, and then something like this happens and you realize you don't," Kathy says. "You have to have peace in your mind that you've done the best you can."
THE BEST THING about traveling with people who fish is seeing the land and water through other eyes, writes Richard Louv in "Fly-Fishing for Sharks."
You see it differently. Instead of trees only, you see trees from a past. Instead of plain water, you see the reflection of a Ouachita woman with her apron full of green worms from the catalpas.
So it is on the Icicle River.
Jami balances mid-stream on a rock, filigree locket around her neck, gossamer filament streaming from her rod, casting a spell around her.
Kathy wades to the stream's far side, felt-bottomed boots hugging slippery rocks, artificial hip supporting long legs. She fishes a quiet brown pool for awhile then moves to a seam, where the trout hang in slow water and let the current wash by.
Reels click and drag like crickets in the round. A cottonwood drops its leaves upon the water.
"Your senses are just flooded," Louise says. "When you cast your fly down on the water, it's like you're absorbed into the river, the coolness flowing by your legs. Instead of standing on the edge of things, you're in the flow of it."
Sounds pretty, but does anyone catch a fish?
Well, Tanya watches transfixed as the Woolly Bugger she'd tied the previous day comes swimming back the other way. A nibble! she realizes too late.
Jami gets a bite, but her line somehow tangles. She sees a fish jump. And then another. Too soon it's time to go. Jami swears she'd have been able to reel one in if only she had another 20 minutes.
Perhaps there's a fourth stage of fly-fishing: Not catching anything, but leaving what you don't want behind.
ON THE LAST morning of the retreat, the survivors gather for an ecumenical sunrise service.
Susan Balch reads a prayer by Margot Page in "Little Rivers: Tales of a Woman Angler."
I ache for sunlight. For health to jump from rock to rock. I want to heal. To fast-forward a few months. I want the trees to fatten their buds, to swell and then erupt in lime-green eroticism. I want the world to fill and my body to forget its scars and the deep gnawing night pain.
And I want to hear the melody, that pure line of flowing water, to be back in the elemental, the green.
The water is so cold it catches your breath, for it starts its voyage as ice and snow in the mountains, tumbling and fresh and ceaseless over the rocks
Let me have the green and the blue for a little while longer. Hold my hand.
Then Balch passes her fishing hat, which is filled with rocks from the river. She tells each woman to pick a stone, hold it, and cast it into the water along with any ache or worry they want to throw away.
Silently, the survivors finger their rocks and walk to water's edge. Joanie clambers atop a boulder. Cheri Rutherford inhales the cool morning air. One by one, they hurl the stones, overhand and hard.
Leslie throws away her fear.
Lee lets go of ill feelings toward her ex-husband.
Susan gets rid of six weeks of niggling work stress that's been distracting from her everyday joy.
Cheri thinks of a friend whose cancer has come back, and another who recently died. She wishes all good thoughts for the former, and for the latter, feels only regret.
The ripples created by the rocks fade then disappear.
The river flows on, emptying into the Columbia River before merging into an ocean named peace.
Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Betty Udesen is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
|Cover Story||Plant Life||On Fitness||Northwest Living||Taste||Now & Then|