Therapy after breast cancer on the fly
Two Mukilteo women recently realized the therapeutic benefits of fly-fishing: The sunlight reflecting on the water, the roaring of the current, the steady back and forth motion of the rod are all very soothing.
This month about 15 women, all survivors of breast cancer, took a trip to Cle Elum to go fly fishing on the Yakima River. Among the fisherwomen were Jeannie Dowd and Bobbie Bassett of Mukilteo.
Northwest Casting Call: A Fly-Fishing Adventure for Life is a Northwest Hospital program that prescribes the sport as therapy for the physical and emotional aftereffects of breast cancer.
The biennial program is funded by Northwest Hospital and free to women diagnosed with breast cancer. It is held in partnership with the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and University of Washington Medical Center every other October, coinciding with Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Most of the women, who are referred to the program by their doctors, are new to fly fishing, Dowd and Bassett included.
The survivors first met at Northwest Hospital for a workshop Oct. 2 that covered fly-fishing basics, before a daylong float trip on the Upper Yakima River, followed by a scrapbooking workshop and finally a celebratory dinner at Ray’s Boathouse Oct. 24.
The two-year-old program was developed by Dr. Sandra Vermeulen, a radiation oncologist at Northwest Hospital in Seattle, after she realized the solace the sport gave her would be good for her patients, too.
Out on the river, their thoughts of medical issues and death float away with the current. The surrounding water and the 10 o’clock-2 o’clock rhythm of their rod soothes them.
“That whole program was so invigorating and uplifting,” Bassett said. “We don’t have to think about anything except staying in the boat and catching fish and mending the rod. Your mind is totally freed for that time.”
The physical motion of casting is also ideal therapy for lymphedema, a potential side effect of breast cancer and treatment that causes painful swelling in the arms and legs.
Bassett said the trip allowed them to do something fun and relaxing just for themselves and in solidarity with the women around them.
She said it is a rare program for survivors after treatment, when so many times they are left on their own once they finish chemotherapy and radiation.
“It’s not addressed much,” Dowd said. “People think that once you’ve gone through everything, everything gets back to normal and you’re just fine, but often times after treatment you feel a little lost.”
“It’s definitely an emotional journey and there is a sisterhood among the women because we’re the only ones who really understand. The feelings, the fears and hopes.”
All they needed was provided: instruction books, fishing rods and reels, waders and boots, transportation to and from the river, fishing licenses, a disposable camera, photo albums and more.
Jeannie Dowd was diagnosed with lobular breast cancer on Jan. 27, 2012. She was 57. It is a rare type of cancer that starts in the glands that produce milk.
“I had a feeling it might be breast cancer because my mother and grandmother had had it,” she said. “My grandmother passed away [from cancer]. My mom had a mastectomy.”
Dowd decided to have a double mastectomy to remove both of her breasts, though the cancer was found in just one. Because of her family history, she didn’t want to take the risk of it recurring.
“My chance of recurrence is very low, but... I decided to hit it with everything,” she said.
She followed three months of chemotherapy with five weeks of radiation and another three months of chemo.
After the mastectomy, Dowd, now 58, had reconstructive surgery to make new breasts using her own belly fat. She is in recovery from the surgeries now. She’ll take medication for the next 10 years and get check ups every several months.
“My oncologist feels that my cancer won’t come back, but having said that, there is no cure, so as a breast cancer woman you always have that in the back of your head,” Dowd said.
She doesn’t think of herself as a survivor, but as a “warrior.” When she needed strength, she knew that her husband, three daughters and God were there for her.
“If you get a diagnosis of breast cancer, you don’t have to be strong and brave,” she said. “You just have to show up, take it a day at a time, but look to the future and realize you’re going to be looking back on all this.”
Bobbie Bassett was diagnosed with the more common ductal breast cancer on June 12, 2013 at age 67. Later, doctors also found lobular cancer in the one breast – just like Dowd.
“Bobbie and I are rare friends,” Dowd said.
“In so many ways,” Bassett added.
Bassett, now 68, has zero history of breast cancer in the family. Her chance of a reoccurrence is very high, but she decided on a mastectomy – “one is bad enough,” she said. She received six months of chemotherapy and no radiation.
When she was first diagnosed, Bassett turned to Dowd for answers because she was going through chemo at the time. They knew each other through volunteer work at the Mukilteo Food Bank.
“She really was an amazing anchor for me,” Bassett said. “I had millions of questions. I remember thinking, ‘She’s surviving and maybe I’ll survive, too.’”
Since then, the two have become good friends. They have watched “Finding Nemo,” gone to the Woodland Park Zoo and partnered up for the Casting Call trip on the river.
Dowd caught one fish that day – a rainbow trout – after switching from dry to wet flies. After 4 1/2 hours, Bassett didn’t catch anything, though she did get five bites.
Dowd and the guide had to coax her into taking breaks from fishing.
“I wasn’t about to get skunked,” Bassett said. "I wanted that fish."
For more information on the fly fishing program, call 206-364-0500 or go to www.nwhospital.org.