(Full version of a story which appeared in The Herald, 6 May 2008)

LIZ ALLEN, a social work manager from south London in her early fifties was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2006. Her condition demanded major surgery – bilateral mastectomy and lymph node removal – followed by intensive chemo- and radiotherapy.

The treatment, a stamina-sapping regime lasting nearly nine months, called for the special reserves of physical and mental endurance which cancer sufferers have to draw on. Today, back at work full-time and restored to complete health although still on hormone therapy, she candidly admits that as her treatment progressed she was conscious that she could become stuck in “sick mode” as she put it.

“I recognised there was a danger of just becoming permanently ‘ill'”, she says. “I needed something to mark the end of all the treatment, but I wanted it to be something positive that I could focus on. I wanted it to be the start of the rest of my life.”

Casting for Recovery - coming to Scotland in 2009
Casting for Recovery - coming to Scotland in 2009

That “something” turned out to fly-fishing. And the catalyst was a just-launched UK charity programme called Casting For Recovery which provides free weekend angling retreats specifically for breast cancer victims.

There can be few pastimes which create a mental picture of pastoral relaxation better than angling. Fly-fishing devotees from Isaac Walton to the late Queen Mother have counselled on the therapeutic benefits of an hour or two with rod and line beside a tumbling stream or gently lapping lake.

But its role in the after-care of women breast cancer victims is unique and according to the programme’s organisers, delivering surprising results although Scotswomen will have to wait until next year until a local venue is available north of the Border.

The theory is simple according to UK organiser Sue Hunter, herself a former breast cancer sufferer and now international gold medal fly-fisher and captain of the English ladies team. “The casting action provides the gentle exercise recommended by physiotherapists for joint and soft tissue mobility, the weekend gives participants a chance to relax, reflect, share experiences and make new friends in a tranquil setting supported by professionals all the way.

“A weekend is quite short, but it gives everyone a skill which they can use whenever they need to go away and de-stress from the trauma of illness or life in general.”

Richard Collins, a member of the Royal College of Surgeon’s council in England and a volunteer advisor to Casting for Recovery, freely admits that the benefits of the programme are essentially diversionary.

“It seems to me that this programme is worth supporting because it helps to take patients’ minds off the illness. It provides a measure of group therapy and shared experiences. Its effects are more psychological than physiological.”

Collins, a Kent surgeon and angler, added: “I don’t think anyone has measured the medical effects. One of the problems of mastectomy in the past was a residual stiffness in the shoulder and surrounding muscles. But radical surgery is no longer applied so that is no longer really a problem any more.”

Allen was a participant at the UK’s first weekend retreat in Sussex last September, less than a month after finishing her treatment. She says: “I was still quite stiff and sore, but they gave me a lighter rod to help and we had one-to-one tuition. The casting was repetitive and a little forceful, but this really complemented my exercises and helped to give me confidence. It is a form of exercise I can carry on with and I am still fishing.”

Her new skills netted her a bouquet of flowers at the end of the weekend for the heaviest basket – a brace of 2.5lb trout. She found the benefits were both physical and mental:

“I really did enjoy myself. The hotel and location were idyllic. Immediately you felt that you had come somewhere special; you felt nurtured. The other part of it was meeting other women at quite different stages of treatment. There was an opportunity to explore things about your own illness and to make new friends.”

The idea was first hatched in 1996 initially by a breast surgeon in the US where last year it attracted 1700 applicants and has already helped nearly 3000 cancer survivors. Four more retreats will take place in England, Wales and Northern Ireland this year. Scotland is set to add its special scenery and hospitality to the organisation’s UK list of venues next year following an exhaustive survey of locations later this summer.

Each retreat accommodates 12 women, lasts around 2.5 days and includes talks and counselling on medical aspects of breast cancer as well as the theory and practice of fly-fishing. The support team includes a physician, breast cancer counsellor, male and female fishing guides and administrators.

Sue Hunter
Sue Hunter

Hunter says: “We are already receiving applications from north of the Border and I know the locations will be attractive, but our list of requirements for a retreat are quite long, and very specific.” The picture postcard appeal of tranquil Highland lochs and glens may not be practicable.

Her checklist demands exclusive use of a high quality small hotel for up to 23 including the supporting team, and easy access to a nearby trout stillwater fishery which can offer unrestricted bank casting, also on an exclusive basis. The whole package has to have excellent transport links since some of the guests will be travelling from the other end of the country. A central Scotland location is likely.

With up to five applications arriving every week, demand for the free all-inclusive retreats is already such that places have to be allocated by ballot. Says Hunter: “Some 40% of our referrals are from within the medical community. We are receiving inquiries from across the UK and would like to help everyone, but we are a charity and depend on volunteer support in many areas.”

The Countryside Alliance has injected £50,000 so far into the programme and is committed to maintaining its support for “several years”. Fishing tackle manufacturer Orvis supplies equipment and some hotels, such as the Arundell Arms in Devon have donated entire weekends.

Kate Hoey MP, chairman of the CA whose aim was to help take fishing to a new audience, says the organisation is “delighted to be supporting the initiative, which will provide some much-needed restorative therapy for many brave women across the UK and Ireland.

• Casting for Recovery can be contacted at PO Box 3611, Slough, Berkshire, SL3 3BY.