Improbable. Delightful. An unfolding gift of community, magic, and the natural world. I saw the flyer in the waiting room of the North West Hospital Cancer Care Alliance. “Casting Call” for all breast cancer survivors who have been treated at NW during the past year to join the women of the medical team on a fly-fishing expedition!
“I don’t have time for that!” I muttered. “I went fly-fishing years ago when the kids were little. I never was any good at it!–What does that have to do with getting through radiation??”
My husband saw it differently. “Do it. You never do things like this. It will be good for you.”
I still resisted, but once the reality of radiation got a hold of me, I began to reconsider. Perhaps I did need something out of the ordinary to look forward to, beyond my “Hiroshima bosom”… Dr. Allison Perrin, my surgeon, encouraged me. “It’s great fun. We all take a bus over the Yakima River – spend the whole day in the fall colors, on the river—and you might get a fish!”
That got me. I realized how long it had been since I had had the chance to get out in nature, much less float down a river. Summer 2015 had been spent at work (thank God! My practice kept me going through every stage in the ordeal) –and in the corridors of the hospital, in doctor’s offices, and curled up on the couch with ice packs healing from a partial mastectomy. Nature and its wonders seemed a distant dream.
A dozen of us – “survivors” (I have to get used to this new identity) met early one Saturday morning in early October. The trees had already turned from lazy summer green to the crisp, burnt colors of autumn. We had been through training a few days before, where we learned the entomology of flies, and how to propel the rod out into space in an elegant, arch. Very artistic, this fly fishing, I thought. It seemed to have a particular appeal to all of the women.
And what women! Age range from 50 to 88! Everyone with a different story, in a different stage of recovery, reconstruction, radiation, chemo, or drug therapy. I was humbled and awash in gratitude that my cancer was caught early, and my recurrence score so low I was not a candidate for chemo.
Gratitude quickly became a theme woven throughout the day, like a golden thread in a fine garment. I felt it in every moment: the laughter, among women who shared a journey no one signs up for, but 1 in 8 will take. The rambunctiousness: on the all-female bus, we shared stories, reconstructions, tattoos, with joy and pride. The beauty of the sunny, seventy-degree day on the Yakima River.
We were two to a boat, with a guide. I ended up, delightfully, in a boat with my radiation oncologist, Dr. Wang. She was as naïve to fly-fishing as I was, confessing that in her few times in a boat, she had always capsized, “at least once”. Our experienced guide, Tim, chortled and took this in stride. “Nobody’s going over today!” he said, “Not on my watch!”
Veterans of the trip had described it as a peaceful, renewing, communion with nature. This may indeed be the experience of some women. For us it was MOBY DICK! Tim was hell-bent that we first-timers would get a fish, constantly directing us to cast, cast again, and pull the rod out of the water at the slightest hint of a nibble.
In the end I caught one tiny little “pickle fish”. Dr. Wang got a picture of it, with a smiling me. Had it been a great white shark, I would not have been more stunned, or overjoyed, or proud!
I felt gratitude for the sheer life force pulsing through every moment of the day, even as the sunlight danced across the surface of the river.
I learned how deeply I am not alone. Cancer ignites the soul, the spirit, the gamut of emotions like nothing else. With each cast, we all seemed to cry, “I am here.”
This Thanksgiving, for me, is not about turkey or what kind of pie to make, or Black Friday. It is about a cornucopia of love and gratitude for my family, my beloved friends, and, –who could ever have predicted this a year ago?–for the women on the bus, and that tiny little fish, released back to the river, free, and alive.