Healing the Pains of Cancer, Depression Through Fly Fishing

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“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.

, Healing the Pains of Cancer, Depression Through Fly Fishing

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

, Healing the Pains of Cancer, Depression Through Fly Fishing

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.

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6 Responses to Healing the Pains of Cancer, Depression Through Fly Fishing

  1. K. Butte says:

    An inspiring, excellent article. Angling is great for the spirit!

  2. Frank Schumaker says:

    Anyone who has fished will know how beneficial angling is at boosting mental health and wellbeing.
    Angling has been a major part in my life and I know from experience, has substantially helped my mental well being. There is the natural benefits in spending time with Mother Nature and especially next to a river, and who knows – even catching a trout or two along the way!
    Nice article.

  3. "Trutta" says:

    Cancer therapy aside, Izaak Walton in “The Compleat Angler” said “No life, my honest scholar, no life so happy and so pleasant as the life of a well-governed angler; for when the lawyer is swallowed up with business, and the statesman is preventing or contriving plots, then we sit on cowslip-banks, hear the birds sing, and possess ourselves in as much quietness as these silent silver streams, which we now see glide so quietly by us. Indeed, my good scholar, we may say of angling, as Dr. Boteler said of strawberries, ‘Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did’; and so, if I might be judge, God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling.”

  4. Charlie Baycroft says:

    According to objective statistics we are probably safer, healthier, and generally better off than people of the past but not any happier.

    As real dangers become less people worry more about less serious risks and seem to become more anxious, depressed and unhappy.

    Modern people are constantly warned about and fearful of things they do not properly understand and cannot effectively deal with.
    Modern living tends to make us feel less in control, hopeful or mutually cooperative with others.

    Fishing, hunting and gathering are more simple and “primitive activities” we inherited from our ancestors.
    They are part of our natural human culture.
    They encourage us to feel that we have control, hope and communal involvement that overcomes the helplessness, hoplessness and isolation of modern living.

    We can always improve our ability to fish hunt and gather more effectively.
    We can understand and effectively deal with the risks on the natural environment.
    There is always hope that the next attempt will be successful.
    We can share the enjoyment of these activities with one another.

    No wonder so many people like to escape from the complexity, frustration and detrimental consequences of modern urban life.

  5. Bud jones JonesQSM says:

    Sadly,in NZ all fresh water /lakes rivers & spring creeks will very soon be racially awarded ownership to elite moedi tribes on a false & fraudulent greedy water grab,assisted by the colaborating ,complicit racist cabal of the Ardern separatists on government benches.There will be no joy to be had in the art of fly fishing as reported in this tale of happiness here.
    Only a ticket clipping exercise to pour an endless stream of revenue into moedi coffers. Joy on our waters with rod & fly is over. Time to rise up & say “NO MORE!!!”.
    The experts all agree it will take bloodshed to stop the coup of our country & the slide into apartheid, now being legislated into our law.Last count had 175 bits of legislation giving advantage privilege, & entitlement to any one claiming a moedi ancestor.Folks, it is truly time to say “ENOUGH!!!”

  6. Meg Adams says:

    There are many reasons why people go fly fishing

    The Splendour Of Solitude
    One of the best ingredients about the sport of fly fishing is exploring my country and travelling its currents. The way I figure it is that if you want to know your country, go fly fishing. New Zealand is a great place to find some solitude, whether experiencing the vista or just enjoying the tranquillity of this under-populated (I actually think it to be overpopulated!) beautiful country, with some 10 or 15 sheep to every person.
    Over the years I have found it important to make space in a day for solitude, even if only for a few minutes. Often, solitude needs to be a disciplined routine of choosing, not something imposed from outside as the whirlpool of life makes it gruelling to find. Finding and making time for it not only brings clarity but also feeds the spirit. Solitude clears the mind and there is always a place it can be found. It is often at these times that memories are spawned. It is time for thinking; for getting away from everything or for being somewhere else; of visiting memories; of being totally alone though not lonely; of being one with nature and feeling the life blood flow through the river of life.
    I have long believed that rivers and their tributaries are the veins of the earth, pumping water to lakes and wetlands and out to the ocean, the water flow being their internal process in following their own course with their cycles, cycles corresponding well to human life – our bodies’ circulatory systems in the journey of delivering nutrients and sustaining life, maintaining homeostasis, thus, being near water offers an opportunity of solitude as well as an appreciation of life forces, of Gaia – a complex interacting system that acts to sustain life, all of which is taking place whilst out and about enjoying the sport.
    Unlike many other sports, fly fishing has long been a sport typically practiced in solitude. In fact, the abundance of breathtaking rivers, lakes, and streams in New Zealand and the plethora of strikingly magnificent fishing opportunities provide some of the most relaxing solitude anywhere. Most anglers I have met are looking for their piece of solitude, sometimes unknowingly. Some walk for miles meandering their way up rivers, confronting all sorts of obstacles such as climbing over giant boulders and slippery rocks, scaling cliffs, wading strong currents, standing in cold water, avoiding submerged trees, getting lost, breaking a rod or bones, or even risking drowning. They arduously hike for hours just to get to a section of river that others would not walk to, they find places where no vehicles can go, they leave cell phones behind, they dread the thwip thwap thwup of a whining helicopter, and they hope for trophy trout in pristine waters often not realising or recognizing that solitude is the trophy they are seeking.
    And so that was what I was after on this Saturday morning as I drove up a forestry track in the boondocks. I was headed to the relatively isolated Hog Lake, a fluvio-glacial lake in my home region. Surrounded by pakihi swamp and mixed podocarp/beech forest creating the amber coloured water, this lake is really a huge wetland that provides a haven for native creatures, a variety of flora and fauna and, of course, brown trout. The lake is not really named Hog. That is the name I have designated to the lake as the trout there are undeniably like hogs – big fat round creatures with large snouts. In all the years I have been going there I have only ever struck another angler encroaching and he was on his way out as he had no success and believed there not to be any trout at all in the lake. I certainly did not tell him otherwise and just commiserated with him that perhaps it was devoid of trout as he believed. I am not one to raise false hopes. But the proof is in the pudding and I had tasted that pudding at Hog Lake. I had also witnessed a hog towing Mal Mac around in the canoe for five or so minutes. Being well over 6 foot tall, Mal is not by any means a lightweight. He had hooked into one of these hogs but unfortunately after a great battle it disappeared off his hook. Mal was not able to raise that hog out of the trough he had hooked it in but I thought I might be lucky enough to have some repeat action today.
    So, I geared up, packed my lunch, and paddled off down the lake to Hog Trough. Theoretically, the whole lake is a trough gouged out by a glacier but there are little sub troughs all over the lake that are literally fish bowls. But this little trough I was headed to was simply a spectacular trough full of food. No wonder hogs lived there. When I arrived at the head of this trough, I climbed on to a rock jutting out into the water. I had tied on a little green bugger with a few strands of krystal flash in amongst the marabou feathers forming the tail. I cast out into the distance of the lake knowing that the fluid seductive movement of the tail breathing with life as it travelled through the water would be irresistible to any hog. And so it was. Within minutes of slowly stripping the bugger in, the life like action of the marabou fibres pulsing in the water had attracted a violent take just under the surface to the extent that I thought the rod was going to be ripped from my hand. The hog immediately surfaced and I saw the glory of its golden colour. It was a sizeable brown. It exploded with power and ran off into the depths. It took the line almost to my backing and the fight was on. I held on for dear life but quickly realized that the 5 lb tippet was no match for this hog. Twice I managed to get it in close enough that I thought I had a chance of landing it and twice it ripped the line from my reel. And then it was gone. In my eagerness to stop it running I had held on to tightly. I rapidly stripped in line and found the tippet was broken and the bugger had gone with it.
    I went through my pocket and found some 6 lb Maxima. A bit old and liable to breakages but it would suffice. I retied the tippet and replaced the fly then cast out into the same trough. I gave it a few moments to sink and then began to retrieve in a style imitating a recovering bully. This tease obviously worked as a second brown hog charged at my bugger and whacked it hard. I struck with all the power I thought the tippet could stand up to and felt the bugger catch solidly as if snagged on a submerged tree stump. It held and like the speed of lightening the hog leaped right out of the water. It then dashed off into the distance, then to the left, then turned and raced into the shore. I hand stripped in as fast as I could but the line went slack and my triumph was short lived. I had just lost a Mac fish. I sat on the rock for a while and contemplated my inadequacy in getting these two hogs into my net. Despite the odds, my next hook-up was a repeat of the other two. After I had had no action for some time after the losses I jumped into the canoe and headed to my next favourite spot.
    When I arrived, there was no visible surface activity to be seen. The insects seemed pretty scarce so I kept a weighted bugger on to tempt these hogs out of the depths. I pulled it through another water trough a couple of times before I had a solid hook-up. A strong brown hog had nailed the bugger. My rod bent, the line strained, the reel sang, but I stayed in the saddle and it was not too long before I had the hog close in then managed to work it on to the small stony beach I was standing on. It weighed a bit over 6 lb, and was short, fat, and strong. Finally, luck was on my side. I now felt more comfortable about experimenting a bit with lures and flies, chopping and changing, thinking through different strategies, focusing on different techniques, and establishing a good modus operandi for fooling these trout into my net.
    My expectations for the day were reasonable and I put my time in ending up with a good catch rate as the trout were quite obliging. I had a few lapses in concentration whereby I missed setting the hook and failed to notice the strike. The contact with a couple of fish lasted no more than a few moments before they disappeared into the depths and one dropped off after leaping into the air with a daring acrobatic manoeuvre.
    All in all, I caught and released some beautiful fish in this tranquil paradise. The hours had crept by and the sun’s rays were working their way through the trees with evening on the horizon. The water speckled with the dimming light, and silhouetted against the clear sky I could see winged insects fluttering in their mating ritual. I was there, silent and solitary, watching, listening, and learning in this wild and remote place. I took a few deep breaths of clean mountain air infused with the smells of the forest and wetland and revelled in the absolute solitude. I was at home. And it was with this thought that I paddled back up the lake in the evening glow. I had set my camp site up early that morning and all I had to do was open up my heart to the small trout that had given up its lake and only life for my pleasure and let its spirit flow through me like a flooded river flushing my heart as I dined on it. Paddling away, I thought that there was no better feeling penetrating every cell of my body than that of being completely alone in a wild and remote place, a world of solitude.


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