License to Live: How a Fishing Retreat Liberated Me from Cancer


Talking about cancer can be a great burden but sharing one’s story can be liberating. Even if you share it while fishing.

When we meet someone for the first time, the encounter has the power and visual equivalent of a poem, a painting or a song. Life is full of these events that seem random. Instead, they are highly symbolic and meaningful.

Just as a river’s confluences, life’s confluences happen in everyone’s life traveling from some strange places, moving constantly and bumping into our side. As the years pass, they keep reproducing and taking forms of encounters, coincidences or occurrences. I have been blessed with these wonderful invisible connections; we are all spiritually linked.

I have been snowed under with cancer for many years. Consciously, I avoided talking “about it”. Later, when I intended to convey my feelings, my mind was limited to deep brown somber holes. Despite trying to connect with others, my melancholy prevailed.

The liberation came when I had an enlightened encounter with Pamela Worrell-Black, a superb social worker with Fairfax Inova Hospital, who begged me to attend a free retreat offered by a nonprofit organization for breast cancer survivors called Casting for Recovery. I bluntly rejected the idea because I was determined to leave behind everything that had to do with cancer.

However, Pamela’s persuasion was stronger than my rebuff. She described the positive effects of that retreat. Finally, I accepted that someone from the organization would call me and then my second marvelous encounter emerged … enter Carol Stevenson. She is one of the sweetest and kindest volunteer-leaders of Casting for Recovery. Carol — who is also a survivor — talked to me for an hour and a half on the phone. She was so caring and compassionate, and I treasured the loving things that she confessed to me.

It all started on a glorious weekend in a locality appropriately called "A Place Apart"; Shrine Mont was formerly a hotel that dates to the 19th Century and now is retreat and conference center located in Orkney Springs, Virginia. The mountains were waiting with undisturbed silence.

I visited this idyllic place supposedly to infuse my dreams, heal my soul and learn how to fly fish, a therapeutic exercise that would help to minimize the effects of the radiation and chemotherapy received and to prevent and protect from lymphedema, a side effect of breast cancer surgery.

We were just 14 women with a variety of concerns, feelings, reactions, and resentments. To belong to this group, you don’t need a special education or a doctorate. You did not need to have an extraordinary talent nor speak a second language. You could be fat, tall, have curly hair. You could be tan, yellow, Black or white. It did not matter to have a domineering personality or be timid as a bird abandoned in the snow. Here, money or recommendations did not count. The only creepy common denominator was having suffered from breast cancer.

At the retreat center, the discussions were very informal. We had a ritual space near the chimney where each one of us guided by counselors redefined our illness, shaped our hopes and, most importantly, strengthened our connections and humanness. Gradually and slowly, we gave ourselves permission to glimpse into our inner strata.

The group (my first ever) ignited great personal transformation. I did a great deal of confessions. I was forever talking; I could not stop telling happy stories and cracking jokes. I was singing and dancing. I reverted into the person that I used to be. Finally, I was able to reconcile with my younger self, the one that left Chile — the same soul that escaped to America because she could not handle the pain of losing her mother to cancer at age of 49. Now, I know that geographical therapy never works.

During the healing sessions, my mind was filled with restorative thoughts and my quest was expanded. It was an incredible experience that enhanced my life. It taught me that individuals, no matter where they are coming from, are universally connected by love, strength, empathy and spirituality.

I had the privilege of being assigned the experienced river guide, Phil Gay, a master casting instructor that has lead CEOs on fishing excursions to some of the most enthralling rivers in the world.

During my training, Phil, instructed me to watch a group of fish that gathered around the one I had caught with his aid. Utterly astonished, I discovered an entire underwater world of fish bonding. The dynamic of camaraderie was developing just before my eyes; a group of fish surrounded the “unfortunate captive” rushing to his side like sharing perhaps some sort of pain or conveying messages. But even more remarkable was this kind of interspecies attachment — a sort of tacit comprehension, a demonstration of solidarity proper of human beings. They narrowed the circle around him soundless and paused. They seemed to understand what was happening and their conduct struck a poignant chord with me as I visualized a funeral.

Attending this healing retreat gave me a profound emotional perspective with a chance of rediscovery. I sensed a deep passion for life; I felt liberated and pampered.

However, in communion with the valuable lived experience and seeking a meaning to all of this, I believe the most outstanding lesson of this journey was the parallel of the social and emotional affiliation between our group of courageous women and the amazing collective cohesion detected amidst the school of fish.

Nora Massignotti-Cortese, is a journalist, artist and workshop facilitator. She can be reached at

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