Group of men standing on a hill by a lake fishing

Reel Recovery: A Place for Men to Heal recently sat down with Reel Recovery, a weekend fly fishing retreat for men living with or after cancer, and Stan, Reel Recovery executive director, to talk about these weekends away from cancer, how the organization got started, and memorable retreat moments.

What is Reel Recovery?

Reel Recovery was founded in 2003 by 3 Colorado fishing buddies, one of whom, Stu Brown was diagnosed with a stage IV glioblastoma. They witnessed how fly fishing took Stu’s mind off his cancer and gave him some peace and even joy as he went through his treatment. They wanted to give this same experience to other men dealing with cancer. They found there were virtually no support services of any kind for men with cancer so I was brought on as Executive Director and we created Reel Recovery from scratch. In June 2003 we self-funded our first Retreat in Loveland, Colorado and have since hosted 300 retreats, serving over 3,400 men across the country and in New Zealand.

Why fly fishing?

As Stu’s experience showed us, when we’re fly-fishing, life's troubles start to drift away as we need to focus on the cast, the fly and the tug of the first bite. We feel the peace and serenity from the healing connection with nature, and the power of friendship as we stand with a fishing buddy and share the day's triumphs and failures. Most of our participants have never fly-fished before so we give them one-on-one instruction and then they’re paired with a volunteer Fishing Buddy, who provides on-stream instruction, safety, and companionship. When they hook their first fish and share their sheer joy and laughter, it’s easy to forget they are dealing with a life-threatening disease. All is well at that moment!

Who is Reel Recovery designed for?

Any man who has had cancer is eligible – any type of cancer and at any stage. Many men are in current treatment or recovery, while others are in long-term remission or even cancer free. We like to have a mix of experiences so that those recently diagnosed hear stories of long-term survivorship, giving them hope for their own journey. We’ve had men aged 21-95, with most between 50-70, just because that’s when most cancers hit. We get men from across the country with different backgrounds, and none of that comes into play during the retreats; cancer knows no boundaries and is the common bond they all share.

What does a retreat weekend look like?

We like to say that the Retreats are composed of four simple components: we eat, sleep, fish, and talk. When the men arrive in the afternoon of the first day, they are often a bit apprehensive, understandably as they are coming into a group of total strangers. But in the first hour or two, as we are registering them and getting them settled in their rooms, they start socializing and feeling more comfortable.

We then gather for our first meeting, introducing each other, going over some logistics, then starting our first Courageous Conversation. We have six of these Conversations interspersed during the course of the 3-day retreat, each facilitated by a trained professional. After the first meeting we eat, then have Conversation #2; then sleep. Day 2 is focused on fishing, with a full day on the water, including instruction and one-on-one “guiding” provided by our volunteer Fishing Buddies. The transformation in most of the men from Day 1 to Day 2 can be startling; the experience on the water can lift their spirits in profound ways. They have fun, have great chats with their Buddies, and get a meaningful respite from their cancer. We fish more on Day 3, then end the retreat with a closing circle including all the participants, staff and volunteers.

Memorable moments

It’s hard to say which part of a Retreat is my favorite. Sometimes, it can be the heartfelt comment from a man who has never told anyone his story, how he now “no longer feels alone” and for the first time in his life, feels “cared for”. Or a young father who now has hope that he’ll “see his daughter walk down the aisle”, or a Vietnam Vet who, for the first time in 40 years feels like he has another “Band of Brothers”.

Sometimes it’s hearing the first “Fish On!” yelled by a newbie fly-fisher, experiencing the thrill of hooking his first-ever fish, then kissing its head before releasing it back to the stream – the childlike joy wiping away all fears, if just for a moment. Or seeing from afar a participant and Buddy, sitting on the bank of the river, just talking. Or seeing the tearful hug of two men at the Closing, before, total strangers, now friends for life.

A place to share your story

All of our staff and volunteers are caring, big-hearted men and women, who warmly welcome the participants and treat them like kings for 3 days. Our Courageous Conversations are low-key, non-judgmental and neither “counseling” nor “therapy” (though therapeutic for sure). We don’t pressure anyone to participate more than they want, and they are invited to go at their own pace. We respect each man as the unique individual he is and have absolutely no “prescriptions” about a right or wrong, good or bad way to handle his cancer experience.

Very few of these men have ever fully told their stories with other men (or women for that matter) who “get it” like these men, so they feel invited to share. Once they do, they both learn about themselves and from the others. They gain new perspectives and see how their own story has been shaped and can now perhaps transform; how the fears they have, others have had as well, and they can perhaps see how they might be able to work through them. How issues that cancer has wrought (emotional, physical, psychological) are normalized in these Conversations, they are common personal responses to having cancer, and in that normalcy, the men might gain some hope, some peace and new means for coping.

Learn more about Reel Recovery

All men 21 and older who have had any form of cancer, at any stage, are eligible, as long as they are physically able to participate. Our 2019 Retreat Schedule and Application Form are on our website. You can find the 2019 Retreat Schedule HERE and the Application Form HERE. Men can come to one Retreat, and there are no geographic restrictions to the Retreat they choose - they just need to provide their own transportation, we provide everything else. All meals and lodging, fishing equipment, and instruction are completely free!

We invite you to come to a Reel Recovery Retreat! They are life-changing experiences that will help any man at whatever place he is in his cancer journey. Click HERE to learn more.

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