Reel Recovery: Retreat for Men with Cancer Comes to the Brazos Valley

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By Rusty Dunn and Steve Wikse

Cancer is perhaps the greatest health challenge of our time. Fourteen years ago, a program called Reel Recovery was started in Colorado to help men who face cancer by providing them a free fly fishing experience combined with group therapy sessions. The program was founded by a group of avid fly fishers who were inspired by their fishing buddy’s ongoing battle with brain cancer.  Witnessing first-hand the beneficial impact fly fishing provided their friend, the men created Reel Recovery to provide the same opportunity to other men battling cancer.

Reel Recovery Retreats are carried out over a two-and-a-half-day period at a resort with onsite or nearby fishing access on a stream, river, or pond. The project now provides free fly-fishing retreats in 19 states and has spread to New Zealand. In 2017 Reel Recovery held 29 of these retreats. Since beginning in 2003, Reel Recovery Retreats have served 3,000 men.

A team of five men was formed in 2016 to bring the program to the Brazos Valley area. These men assembled the funding and volunteers to carry out a retreat to serve men in the seven counties that make up the Brazos Valley: Brazos, Burleson, Grimes, Leon, Madison, Robertson, and Washington counties. The first Brazos Valley Reel Recovery Retreat was held March 31 to April 2, 2017, at Camp Allen, the Texas Episcopal Diocese Retreat near Navasota.

The First Brazos Valley Reel Recovery Retreat
Twelve men with cancer arrived at Camp Allen the afternoon of the first day. They were greeted by the project coordinators, a clinical psychologist, a physician, and a photographer. After settling into their rustic cabins by a peaceful lake, participants had the first of five group therapy sessions called “Courageous Conversations,” each lasting one hour. They were welcomed, introduced to the staff, and given a brief overview of the retreat schedule. Then they introduced themselves and began sharing their experiences of coping with cancer. The men were gently brought out by the experienced psychologist. Punches were not pulled, however, comments were serious because cancer is a very serious disease. The first question tackled by the participants was “What makes you most afraid of cancer?” You can see why the Reel Recovery group therapy sessions are called courageous conversations.

Next came a delicious dinner with time for participants to talk one-on-one and get to know each other. Following dinner, participants attended the second courageous conversation. Discussions delved deeper, and bonding began taking place.

In the morning, participants had breakfast with the 12 fishing buddies who were to fish by their sides during the three fishing sessions. After breakfast, the participants had their third courageous conversation. About two-thirds of the participants were finished with their cancer therapy and leading healthy lives. Strength and resilience seemed to spread as recovered men gave hope to those in the throes of treatment.

Next came the vest ceremony. Each participant was solemnly given a khaki fly fishing vest to use the two days they fished. The vests are used at multiple Reel Recovery Retreats throughout the United States. Participants used a marker pen to permanently sign their name on the vest next to the names of men who used them at past retreats. It was pointed out that many of those men had lost their struggle with cancer.

After the vest ceremony, group photos were taken and participants paired up with their fishing buddies who drove them to a nearby private farm pond loaded with fish. The pond was very generously offered for their use by Mr. Pete Huddleston. After a fly casting demonstration, participants hit the water and began hauling out scrappy, healthy bass and perch.

Fishing buddies gave their participants personal instruction on fly selection, knot tying, casting, and playing fish. Catching fish on a fly rod using flies that they had selected made great sport for the participants. The morning fishing session was followed by a tasty BBQ lunch also contributed by Mr. Huddleston. Tales of fish caught and flies that worked were told.

Participants then enjoyed an entire afternoon of excellent fishing on the beautiful pond. Fishing was so good that one participant said he stopped counting after 40 fish. Later, another delicious dinner was had back at Camp Allen and the clinical psychologist directed the participants’ fourth courageous conversation. Afterwards, participants could be seen discussing their experiences and deepening their friendships one-on-one or in small groups.

Participants had their fifth and last courageous conversation after breakfast the final day of the retreat. They then drove to the farm pond for an enjoyable morning of fishing, then back to Camp Allen for lunch.

Following lunch there was a very emotional closing ceremony involving participants, their fishing buddies, and the psychologist. The participants held hands and formed a circle around the psychologist. The psychologist then turned to each participant and pointed out how their presence benefited the other participants and thanked them for attending. The ceremony ended with the participants raising their held hands in unison in a “circle of strength” and shouting the Reel Recovery motto “Be well! Fish on!” Participants received a box of fishing flies from their fishing buddies for future adventures and then bid goodbye to their new friends.

Retreat Follow Up
Coordinators were very happy with the success of the first Brazos Valley Reel Recovery Retreat. Many people worked together to make that happen. This included hard work by men on the development team, fishing buddies, physician, clinical psychologist, and the tremendous generosity of Mr. Huddleston. That was not the end though.

Five months later, in October, a lunch reunion was held in College Station for the participants and their fishing buddies. Friendships were renewed and comments on how to improve the program were solicited. Some of the participants had made contact to support each other since the retreat, but there was a desire to develop an efficient way to stay in touch with everyone. By the next day a Facebook group was launched by a tech-savvy participant. This has allowed participants to stay in closer touch and do a better job of supporting each other.

Benefits of a Reel Recovery Retreat
Reel Recovery Retreats offer a unique experience for men with cancer: a time to share their stories, learn a new skill, form new friendships, and gain renewed hope as they confront the challenges of their recovery. In courageous conversations they speak from their hearts as they share their thoughts, fears, and experiences with other men fighting cancer. Catch-and-release fly-fishing enables them to learn a new skill, form a healing connection with nature, and participate in a sport they can continue throughout their recovery and their lifetime. All thoughts of cancer vanish while fishing.

The courageous conversations provide a safe environment for the participants to discuss their disease and recovery with men who shared their experiences, thereby providing support, hope, and information to help them in their recovery.

“I’ve lived with cancer 14 years, but not until this retreat have I had the opportunity to open up about the serious consequences of cancer – whether it be marital relationships, medication side effects, self-esteem, and a myriad of other topics we discussed both in and out of communal sessions,” says a Reel Retreat participant.

The vest ceremony and closing ceremony promote camaraderie, communication, and lasting friendships. Follow up reunions strengthen bonds of friendship that provide a reservoir of hope to participants as they cope with cancer.

How You Can Become Part of Reel Recovery
There are many ways a person can be involved in Reel Recovery. The first is to attend a retreat as a participant or to help identify men to participate. Men who are in treatment for or in recovery from all forms of cancer are eligible to attend a Reel Recovery retreat.

The second way is to volunteer as a fishing buddy at a retreat. This is a very satisfying endeavor that can have an immediate positive impact on the life of a man struggling with cancer. Note that fishing buddies must be experienced fly fishermen.

The third way is to financially support the program. Because retreats are provided at no charge to the participants, Reel Recovery is solely supported by donations from businesses, organizations, and individuals. Reel Recovery is determined to keep retreats free, to eliminate any financial barriers to participation, and to avoid adding burdens to men already dealing with hardships. Because Reel Recovery is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization, donations are tax deductible to the full extent allowed by law. The Brazos Valley retreat operates at a cost of $700 per participant.

The next Brazos Valley Reel Recovery Retreat will be held at Camp Allen March 16 through 18. Interested participants or volunteers should contact Rusty Dunn at (377) 344-4385 or Steve Wikse at (979) 446-2386.

To sponsor a participant or a portion of a participant’s cost at the retreat, a check can be made to Reel Recovery with a notation “Brazos Valley Texas Retreat.” The check should be mailed to Reel Recovery Main Office, Executive Director Stan Golub, 160 Brookside Road, Needham, MA 02492 .For further information on ways to be a part of Brazos Valley Reel Recovery contact Dunn or Wikse.

“Be well – fish on!”