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BY WILLIAM WEIR, email@example.com
The Hartford Courant
11:36 AM EDT, September 28, 2012
For breast cancer survivors, support groups have taken various incarnations. Some are based around art therapy or yoga, others are held in more traditional settings. One is even set in a river, where the tranquil setting of fly fishing offers a unique way to help.
Casting for Recovery, a Vermont-based organization co-founded by a breast cancer reconstructive surgeon and a professional fly fisher, hosts weekend retreats for breast cancer survivors in 32 states.
"We introduce them to the world of fly-fishing," said Cheryl Murphy, program director for the Connecticut chapter. "We give them advanced casting lessons, and lessons in knot-tying. It sounds like a funny thing to do. The women go in, many never having fished at all."
Since 2003, the chapter has hosted a two-and-a-half-day retreat each year in West Cornwall (they're in the process of finding a new location within the state). Each year, the organization randomly chooses 14 breast cancer survivors who have applied. Casting for Recovery pays all their expenses.
Sharon Mulcahy, a 69-year-old dance therapist from Glastonbury, said just meeting the other retreat members was an experience she won't forget.
"The thing was so amazing because we were all breast cancer survivors," she said. "There was an immediate bonding."
And, of course, there was fishing.
"We went into the Housatonic River in our waders and vest and hats with our guides and we fished for two hours," she said. "It was just the most wonderful feeling. We were waist-high in the water, with the hills all around. It was so therapeutic."
It's unusual, Murphy said, but it's hard to find a more peaceful activity than fly-fishing.
"It provides them with a respite from familiar surroundings, it's just so laid back," she said. "I like to refer to this program as healing beyond medicine."
And on top of peer support and advice from experts, they might end up with some fish.
"Pretty much everyone catches a few," Murphy said. "It depends on the conditions of the river."
For those patients and survivors looking for a more traditional group setting, many hospitals in the area offer a variety of programs.
"You need to be able to talk to someone who has actually experienced what you've been through," said Cynthia Gibson, a Hartford resident who has been a member of the St. Francis Hospital Breast Cancer Support group for five years. "You have people who say 'I know how you feel,' and they haven't gone through that experience, so they don't know how you feel."
But because all the members of her support group have been diagnosed with breast cancer, Gibson, 60, said it feels like a "sisterhood."
"They can say I know how you feel or I understand how you feel," she said."I call it a lifeline."
Janet Ragno, a social worker at St. Francis who organizes support group meetings, said the format of the sessions there is pretty loose. Much of it, she said, involves working out "communication issues."
"Cancer is one of those life-stopping moments, and you feel so alone," she said.
Every other month, a specialist comes to speak to the group about a different topic. A nutritionist, for instance, might come to talk to the group members about healthful eating.
New members often wait before participating in the discussions.
"We have people who sit back, but they're taking it all it in," she said. "Sometimes, they're withdrawn and hugging themselves for comfort."
Eventually, she said, once many see that the other women are going through the same things they are, they're more willing to open up to the group.
Gibson said few people continue to go to the meetings for as long as she has.
"There may come a time when I don't need to go, but right now it just helps me," she said. "It makes feel strong to know there's somewhere I can go when I have question - and five years later, I still have questions. For now it's an opportunity to share and support other women and together we make each other stronger."
Zoe Christopher, resource liaison for the national advocacy group Breast Cancer Action, said that cancer support groups emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, when "community-based forms of psychotherapy" became popular.
"People learned that you didn't necessarily need a professional to walk you through a crisis," she said in an email. "People who had experienced similar trauma or challenge were able to provide wonderful support to one another."
Go to courant.com/supportgroups for a list of support groups offered in the Hartford Metro area.
For more information about Casting for Recovery, go to castingforrecovery.org/wordpress/home/
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