Benefield: Fly fishing a unique respite for breast cancer patients, survivors

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.


Think Pink

This story is part of The Press Democrat's Think Pink series for the month of October. To read more Think Pink stories, click here.

When Tish Levee of Santa Rosa was diagnosed with breast cancer last summer at the age of 78, her friend sent her a gift from Montana. It was a journal that her pal had personalized with different writing prompts.

On one page were the words: “Bucket List.”

It was there, in the first entry, that Levee wrote that she’d like to learn to fly fish.

Enter Casting for Recovery, a national nonprofit organization established in 1996 that sends women in all stages of breast cancer and recovery on all-expenses-paid weekends to learn fly fishing. The motion required in fly fishing can be therapeutic and help increase mobility for women who have had breast surgery or radiation.

But that’s not all. Turns out that fishing is not really even the most important part of the program.

“There is just something about all of us being out there in nature, in the river,” said Talia Kilburn, 38, of Santa Rosa. “That was really powerful, to be actually in the river and to be doing something so good for all of us, doing something active and doing it with a lot of other women that have been through something really difficult.”

Kilburn was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015 when she was 34. A kindergarten teacher in Forestville, Kilburn said she learned about Casting for Recovery from a friend she’d met at a different survivors’ retreat — one that put survivors on surfboards riding waves in San Diego.

And like Levee, Kilburn put her name into the lottery drawing and was picked. The program can accommodate just 14 women per weekend.

The multi-day program includes tutorials from pros who volunteer their time to teach participants how to tie flies and how to properly cast, but there are also group discussions and activities that have nothing to do with fly fishing.

Oncology nurses have come to offer educational support and to answer questions. Therapists have come to answer some of the questions that science can’t.

A national survey of Casting for Recovery participants showed that about 70% had never been to any kind of support group.

“For a lot of them, it’s their first time,” said Suzanne Gulick, program coordinator for Casting for Recovery-NorCal.

And everyone approaches it as they need to. Some listen, some talk. Others submit questions or topics of discussion on index cards. Everyone is free to put into, and get out of, the weekend what they want.

“You don’t have to come to anything,” Gulick said. “You find that they are curious and interested. It helps a lot of people. They talk about how they don’t feel alone. The women are inspiring, very inspiring.”

Kilburn said she was drawn to the idea of learning to fish and feels the pull of anything having to do with water, but there was a bigger draw for her in the end. She said there was wisdom to be gained in hearing other women’s stories that, though similar, had threads that were totally unique.

“How they discovered it, the treatment they went through, what is happening now, just to share that and hear their experiences is really powerful for me,” she said.

“There are times it’s hard not to feel sorry for yourself that this happened to you, but to kind of just know that it’s happened to other people and the ways that they have gotten through it. Now I have new ideas to think about or to do when I’m having one of those times when I’m feeling” down, she said.

Think Pink

This story is part of The Press Democrat's Think Pink series for the month of October. To read more Think Pink stories, click here.

Levee submitted her name to the program’s registration lottery after finding out about it by luck. She was riding in a friend’s car on the way to a cancer-recovery yoga session and a Casting for Recovery pamphlet was on the floor.

Intrigued, she applied and was chosen for the 2½-day trip to Indian Creek near Douglas City last month. The NorCal Chapter hosted two retreats in 2019 — one to Indian Creek in September and other to Fall River in July.

“This has been on my bucket list for at least 40 years,” Levee said.

Growing up in Montana, she watched her dad tie his own flies. When the family would pack up for evenings on their local river, Levee’s mom would bring hot dogs as a backup meal, but they never needed them. Their fish stringers were always heavy with their catch.

But Levee never learned to fly fish. She viewed the weekend on the Indian Creek as her shot. Turns out, her weekend wasn’t entirely about fishing.

“It’s about being mindful,” she said. “When you are in the water, everything else goes away. You become very mindful. It’s a kind of meditative practice.”

And there’s this: “I didn’t catch a fish, but hey, I didn’t fall in the river.”

Gulick participated in 2013 and loved it so much she turned around and offered to volunteer. She is now the program coordinator. The NorCal chapter has been active since 2001.

“When you are out on the river, you don’t think about your cancer. It’s about connecting with nature, it’s about connecting with other women,” she said.

“It changed my life, obviously,” she said. “It’s an amazing weekend.”

Kilburn, too, said she felt changed after her weekend on the river.

“A lot of us cried telling our own stories or cried hearing other people’s stories. We can all share that, it’s sort of sacred,” she said. “It’s a safe place to be whatever you need to be at that time.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

Please read our commenting policy
  • No profanity, abuse, racism, hate speech or personal attacks on others.
  • No spam or off-topic posts. Keep the conversation to the theme of the article.
  • No disinformation about current events. Claims of "Fake News" will be delayed for moderation
  • No name calling. "Orange Menace", "Libtards", etc. are not respectful.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Emerald Report
Spirited Magazine