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BY HAZEL ATKINS TIMEJUNE 14, 2023 PRINT
“The river runs through my veins,” said Katie Cahn, self-taught fly fishing expert and active volunteer for Casting for Recovery, a nonprofit organization providing outdoor retreats to women with cancer. Cahn grew up white-water kayaking and rafting on the Chattooga River in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. She taught herself how to fly fish when she was in her 30s. The river, the wildness, the solitude, the challenge, and the fish have given her solace and sanctuary when she needed it most. Now, she shares the healing power of fly fishing with those who are fighting against illness, loneliness, and fear.
Katie Cahn fishes for wild trout in the spring. (Daniel Even Weddle)
Not a day goes by when Cahn doesn’t wake up knowing she could be afraid. Instead, she says to herself, over and over, “Today, I am alive. Today, I will live.” Fly fishing takes perseverance, determination, patience, and loving care—and Cahn brings these lessons to her life. She knows how the women at Casting for Recovery might be feeling because she has felt it herself.
At age 36 and deeply in love with her husband, Cahn was diagnosed with cancer only three weeks after their wedding day. Just 14 hours after the diagnosis, her left kidney was removed. Almost immediately, she shot down a spiral of fear and severe depression. She learned, nine weeks after the first surgery, that another one was necessary to remove a large mass on her ovary. “I was so scared. I didn’t know how to deal with any of it,” she said. Desperate to feel like herself again, she returned to the river—her life source—and to the fly fishing that was able to calm her heart.
A River That Heals
Cahn’s childhood was difficult. Her father left when she was 8. Her mother worked multiple jobs and was hardly ever home. Cahn struggled in grade school; having dyslexia, she had to work hard just to understand what she was reading, and there was no one to help her with homework. Growing up without a father figure, she developed a need to feel seen by every man she met. For a while in her early adulthood, she had a number of unhealthy relationships. In the middle of all this, she was always drawn to the river. “As a child, I always loved watching the fish,” she said. “I’m most at home on the banks of a river.”
Eventually, Cahn decided she wanted to become a special education teacher to help kids who struggle in school. She went to Western Carolina University when she was 30 and lived just 500 yards from the Tuckasegee River. She studied hard, put a lot of stress on herself, and ultimately did really well. However, she needed an escape. Tucked away in her closet was a fly fishing rod an old boyfriend had given her; she got it out, walked across a pasture to the river, and began trying to cast.
Before this, Cahn had done white-water kayaking for 20 years, but now she turned to fly fishing because she needed something she could do on her own. She needed solitude to allow her mind to clear: “I needed time on the river without people around me,” she said. Through trial and error and by watching YouTube videos, she learned more and more about fly fishing, and she went to the river every time she could. Eventually, she said, “I got my first fish, and it was love.”
“Fly fishing was a deep part of me before the diagnosis,” Cahn said. It made sense for her to return to it for comfort and recovery when she was struggling with fear and despair. “My experience of cancer was pretty unique,” she said. She had an asymptomatic form of kidney cancer. “Most people die from it because they catch it too late,” she explained. Shortly after her wedding, she started experiencing severe back pain, and eventually a specialist spotted the cancerous tumor on her kidney. “This is the youngest I’ve ever seen this,” she overheard him say to a nurse in the hall. “I can’t believe this,” he added.
Epoch Times Photo
Cahn often brings her daughter, Myra Lou, fishing. Here, they are in western North Carolina. (Katie Cahn)
A Pivotal Moment
After her first surgery, depression hit her like a wave. Because she was in surgery just hours after the first shock of diagnosis, leaving her with no time to process her situation, she turned to the internet for research about kidney cancer. “I didn’t have anyone to tell me not to do that,” she said. Inevitably, her fear spiraled out of control. “The depression came on me really quick,” she said. “I was sitting on my mom’s porch and heard a train whistle from the railroad track. I wished I was in front of that train.”
Cahn lost weight dramatically. “I was shriveled up. I felt bad that I was so thin and didn’t know what to eat. I didn’t look good. I didn’t feel good. I was so scared my husband was going to leave, even though he showed no sign of it. The depression got really ugly,” she said. At the time, North Carolina where she lives was most unusually experiencing a drought. However, days after her second surgery, it started to rain. “I went out on the river six days after my second surgery,” Cahn recalled. “I caught a fish and it felt better than any other fish I’d ever caught. I don’t think any doctor would have recommended it, but I didn’t care.”
Getting back on the river was the medicine she needed. “I knew I wouldn’t start to feel better overnight,” she said, but with the patience and perseverance she brought to her fishing, she considered a similar approach to her life. “The healing process is not about finding out why the cancer happened,” she said. “It’s not about control; how can I make sure it doesn’t come back? I can’t. It’s just accepting that time will tell, and that was the scariest and hardest part.” It is still scary for Cahn. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the cancer,” she said.
Cahn’s experiences made her stronger. “I was such a wimp; I never even wanted to have my blood taken because I didn’t want a needle in my arm,” she explained. Now, she recognizes that she is a better person because of her journey through fear. She is passionate about helping other women on their own cancer journeys find peace on the river: “What I have seen through my time guiding these women is that they’re able to let go of some things for that weekend. They are able to be around people who are experiencing the same things, and they are able to vent, laugh, let loose. You can see it on the days you take them fishing. The stress, the sadness—they can let it go when they’re out there on the river. I’ve seen it with every one of them I’ve taken out.”
She knows that many of them are at stage four cancer and face a difficult road. “I give them a hug, and I give them my love, and it’s all I can do,” she said. “But when I’m with them on the river and I see them uplifted and laughing, it’s amazing.”
Cahn looks at life as she looks at a river. Sometimes the river gives you eddies, so you’re able to eddy out and think about what you’re doing. Maybe you want to run that rapid. Maybe you don’t. “And when you don’t have an eddy and you just have to go for it, that’s part of life too,” she said. “When I’m on a river, the peace I feel is like no other.”
Katie Cahn’s top tips for getting started with fly fishing:
If you are just starting, it’s a good idea to borrow gear if you can. Fly fishing equipment can be pricey, and you may learn that you don’t even like the sport. At first, you’ll need a rod, reel, line, and flies. And if it’s cold, waders and boots. But if you are just practicing casting or standing on the edge of a river, waders and boots aren’t necessary.
Take a fly fishing 101 class or hire a guide. Most fly shops offer classes, and if they don’t, ask if you can get a lesson on the basics. Sporting goods company Orvis offers free fly fishing 101 classes! They go over casting, knots, and bugs.
Fly fishing is an art and was designed to be meditative and peaceful. Getting frustrated is part of learning, so be easy on yourself. Your line will get snagged on rocks and logs, but eventually that snag will be an actual fish. Remember to clean up any line that gets caught in the river and trees.
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.