Cancer Retreats: Finding a Fresh Perspective

Lisa Esposito


Fly-fishing in the clear mountain waters at a Wyoming ranch. Hobnobbing in a posh restaurant to cap off an empowering weekend in the nation's capital. Chilling by the waterfall after a Tai Chi session in the North Carolina foothills.

For people recovering from cancer and treatment side effects, retreats like these offer much-needed breaks to refresh their spirits and connect with others who can relate to all they're going through, in an atmosphere that offers camaraderie and support.

Fishing for Healing

Entering its 20th year, Casting for Recovery organizes free fly-fishing retreats for women with breast cancer ­­across the country. The two women co-founders, a breast-reconstructive surgeon and a fly-fishing instructor -- both avid anglers -- came up with the concept, says Whitney Milhoan, executive director of the nonprofit group.

"Fly-fishing is a physically nondemanding sport," Milhoan says. "But the motion of casting a rod can be a good way to just encourage mobility in the upper arm and body for women who might have had surgery or radiation as part of their treatment for breast cancer." On the emotional level, she says, fly-fishing offers healing properties of being outdoors and the restorative benefits of the sport itself. Research shows outdoor activities improve mood, help activate vitamin D and may speed up healing, and a University of Indiana study showed fly-fishing provides a calming effect for soldiers recovering from PTSD, along with a sense of camaraderie.

This year, about 600 women will be served through 40 retreats nationwide. A random drawing selects attendees for each 14-person retreat. Lodging and meals are free, leaving attendees one less expense to deal with. The two-and-a-half-day retreats also offer medical education, group discussions and support from professional facilitators. The final half day of catch-and-return fly-fishing is the highlight. Participants are geared up with boots, waders, rods, reels, vests and equipment, along with individual guides.

For many women, "this is the first time being around other survivors and really getting a chance to connect with other women who know exactly how they feel, and share some of their stories," Milhoan says. "That can be pretty powerful."

Ladies in Wading

Mary Roberson, 60, a recently retired teacher in Riverton, Wyoming, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008. Six years later, her name was drawn for a fly-fishing retreat at Absaroka Ranch, in Dubois.

The Casting for Recovery retreat was "a chance to be pampered and to feel worthwhile, in spite of all we've been through," Roberson says. "It was really heart-to-heart sharing because those other gals knew what you went through."

With women in different stages of treatment and recovery, retreats encompass a spectrum of experience. Roberson says she and other who've moved past treatment provide balance and encouragement to women just starting out. In the past, Roberson had been a spectator on fly-fishing excursions with her husband and sons. So the retreat's format reeled her in. "It was really more the idea of connecting with other gals that I had something in common with -- and that was breast cancer," she says. "And maybe making connections with someone I might have something in common with in the future -- and that was fly-fishing."

This time, Roberson geared up and fished, along with the other women who call themselves the "Ladies in Wading." The session is "magical," Roberson says. "Walking along the river, up in the mountains -- it's absolutely beautiful up there."

Celebrating Survivorship

In May, lung cancer survivors, experts and caregivers from across the country met in Washington, District of Columbia, for the annual national HOPE Summit hosted by the LUNGevity Foundation. Attendees heard from oncologists, pulmonologists and other experts, and they learned about topics including the latest research findings, new treatments and nutrition.

The weekend summit allows people to mingle, offer mutual support and give voice to their experiences with lung cancer, which doesn't always get much airtime, despite the more than 400,000 Americans living today who've ever been diagnosed with it, according to the American Lung Association. "A lot of times, people with lung cancer feel very isolated in their community," says Katie Brown, vice president of support and survivorship for LUNGevity. "To be around and able to commune with 150 other survivors is really fantastic."

Amanda Kouri, 24, who works for a talent agency in New York City, attended. Kouri, a nonsmoker, had respiratory symptoms as a child, but her lung cancer diagnosis wasn't made until she was a young adult. Last September, she underwent surgery to remove her entire right lung. She didn't require chemotherapy or radiation and is now considered cancer-free.

Kouri expected to find a sad or somber atmosphere. Instead, she says, the summit was packed with caregivers and survivors, doctor and researchers, all offering a message of hope. "Not a moment was sad -- it was happy, being there," she says. "I had a great time -- it was wonderful."

Each year, attendees get a chance to be tourists, whether it's an evening tour of the city or a bus trip into Georgetown. This year, a chic restaurant in nearby Potomac, Maryland, opened its doors and gave over the entire restaurant to serve them.

"It was so nice to get dressed up and put on makeup and be with other people who haven't had a chance to do that in a couple months, or years, because they've been so focused on being sick," Kouri says. With everybody sharing a diagnosis, she says, it was a time not to be sick. "You take out that common denominator and we're all just people celebrating each other."

Waterfall Sanctuary

Eight years ago, Shannon Carney and David Pschirer, co-founders of Wind River Cancer Wellness Retreats & Programs, began holding retreats on their property in the foothills of North Carolina. "We realized people needed more time in nature," says Carney, a 12-year cancer survivor. "They needed to be able, quite frankly, to get a break from treatment in the hospital and have a space to reconnect with their best self."

Rather than focusing on a specific type of cancer, the no-cost retreats welcome people with diverse diagnoses. Most are adults in their 30s, 40s and 50s, Carney says, and many are dealing with a more advanced stage 3 or stage 4 cancer, or a recurrence.

"What we've designed and created here is really a kind of sanctuary." Carney says. "We have a beautiful creek with boulders and trees and a lovely waterfall. We've created soft, smooth trails so people can get down to the base of the waterfall, sit and relax in a hammock -- really find time to let the physiology of nature calm their central nervous system. And just have time to have fun and relax."

All sorts of offerings -- including Tai Chi, meditation, yoga, guided imagery, healing touch and painting sessions -- provide a respite for men and women coping with busy lives complicated by cancer. Meals centered on plant-based foods are part of the wellness experience.

"People are looking for a fresh perspective and they're looking for newness," Carney says. "They're looking for purpose." The feedback she hears most often is: "I found my inner peace. I let go of things I didn't even know I was holding onto."


Lisa Esposito is a Patient Advice reporter at U.S. News. You can follow her on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn or email her at lesposito@usnews.com.