Fishing as therapy is his reality

ROSEBURG — Water, not medicine, flowed "through" them. Overhead were a blue sky and a warm sun, not glaring lights and a white ceiling.

This was the Umpqua River and the Big K Guest Ranch near Elkton, not a big city hospital or clinic.

The treatment and therapy for three days was "courageous conversation" and fishing, not medicine and radiation.

Fourteen men, all cancer patients, participated in the Reel Recovery program at the Big K last month. They talked, sharing their stories about cancer, and they fished, casting fly lines for smallmouth bass.

"I think I get to put them in a place where they're not thinking about what's going on with them," said Robert Bernard, the volunteer retreat coordinator for Reel Recovery, a nationwide nonprofit organization whose goal is to help men deal with cancer. "This is a distraction."

"There was 100 percent agreement in the group that this retreat was an uplifting experience for everybody," said Ron Wangerin of Grants Pass. He's been in remission for 10 months after being treated for the most aggressive form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

"It's a great idea and was a great event for me to attend," Wangerin added. "It answered a lot of questions I guess a doctor can't answer because the doctor doesn't have cancer. The whole disease experience left a lot of unanswered questions and issues for me, and I found a lot of answers from my peers in this group. You find out that all 14 of us are going through the same emotional issues. You're not alone."

George Pergin of Rogue River, one of the 14, agreed the retreat was beneficial. He's recovered from a 71/2;-hour surgery in August 2007, and then 12 days in the hospital after being diagnosed with bladder cancer.

"I think the best part of this whole event was being in the middle of all these guys, listening to how they got cancer, how they got started with treatment, and how they've dealt with it," Pergin said. "The retreat is a really, really good thing for people and the fishing just made the day."

Reel Recovery was founded by a group of fly fishermen in 2003.

They were inspired by a fishing buddy's battle with brain cancer. They saw firsthand how their friend was emotionally and physically lifted by a fly fishing outing.

So they started Reel Recovery to provide similar experiences for other men dealing with cancer.

The retreats combine expert fly fishing instruction with frank discussions about cancer that are moderated by trained facilitators.

There is no cost to participate in the retreat other than getting to the site. The nonprofit program raises the funds to cover expenses for the retreats.

The John Wayne Cancer Foundation is a founding sponsor for Reel Recovery. John Wayne had surgery for lung cancer in 1964 and died 15 years later after a struggle with stomach cancer.

"It's a very good cause," Bernard said. "It gets people out, talking to each other and comparing experiences, which can be helpful to them."

There have been 86 retreats around the United States since 2003. Each event is limited to 12 to 14 participants. About 1,000 men have attended a retreat.

A typical retreat is three days and two nights. The agenda includes six two-hour sessions of talks and about 15 hours of fishing. The balance of time goes to meals, visiting and relaxing.

Bernard said the average age of the participants at the retreats is 70, but there was a 41-year-old at the Big K retreat.

"Any man with any kind of cancer at any stage and at any age may participate," he said.

This was the fifth-straight summer that a retreat has been held at the Big K Guest Ranch, which has several miles of Umpqua River frontage. Bernard said Reel Recovery would be back in August 2011 for another three days of conversation and fishing.

The schedule for 2011 retreats will be posted in January on Reel Recovery's website,

Richard Wolfe, a fishing guide from Camas Valley, has coordinated the fishing guides for each of the five retreats. The guides volunteer their time. Wolfe's sons Kameron and Dennis were fishing buddies for this year's event.

"It's just a wonderful thing to be able to do for people, to give back to people," Richard Wolfe said. "It's a pretty tough thing they're going through and to be able to help get them on the water and enjoy that experience is an awesome thing to do.

"I think they're pretty strong in how they're dealing with it (cancer)," he added. "You don't hear a lot of pity stories. I think the retreat does a tremendous amount for their attitude. It's a chance for them to get on the water and to get away from all of it. There's a lot of therapy to being on the water under blue skies. It's a beautiful stretch of water and you can't help but enjoy yourself while out there."

Wolfe has cancer in his own family. Son Dennis, 20, has been dealing with bone and lung cancer.

"He's been a fishing buddy for the last two years, and it's been a real blessing for him and for the participants to see him out there doing this," Wolfe said of his son.

Michael Shearer, a fishing guide from Glide, has volunteered one day to each of the five retreats at the Big K. He also has cancer in his family.

"Someday I may need somebody to take me fishing," Shearer said. "It's a very good cause, and I'll help out for as long as I'm able."

Those seeking more information on the program or wanting to apply for future retreats may visit the group's website or may call Bernard at 503-310-8714 or Jon Larson at 503-992-0726.

"This is a way for men with cancer to help themselves emotionally and physically," Bernard said.

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