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Healing companionship through fly-fishing for men with cancer

fly-fishing for men with cancer

Jim Vihtelic says this is the the first brown trout he has ever caught — and hopefully not the last.

When James Vihtelic began treatment at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center for bladder cancer in 2003, he joined the program’s Bladder Cancer Support Group (PDF). He participated for several years and still drops in occasionally. Though he didn’t realize it thirteen years ago, Jim was about to become a steadfast advocate of support for men with cancer.

“I enjoyed fly-fishing as boy, but didn’t think of it again until I saw a brochure for a cancer support network for men that involved fly-fishing,” he remembers.

A friend of Jim’s who was attending a doctor’s appointment for cancer a couple of years ago, and who has also since been through the retreat himself, provided a brochure found in the waiting room, which was from a private non-profit organization called Reel Recovery. It outlined its mission to provide a safe, supportive environment for men who are at any point in their journey with cancer. Together, they explore their personal experiences of cancer with others with similar stories – all within the framework of a buddy system and fly-fishing instruction.  In September 2014, Jim attended Reel Recovery’s two-and-a-half day retreat on the Pierre Marquette River near Baldwin, MI.

fly-fishing for men with cancer

Photo courtesy of Reel Recovery.

“It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Some of the guys came away saying it was a life-changing experience. All felt it was worthwhile,” Jim says.

Jim recalls one of the other attendees at the retreat. The man was a cancer survivor. However, the experience left him feeling beaten down, without goals and afraid to make decisions relating to his future. The man left the retreat feeling strong and confident about his own self, his interests and his outlook. He was eager to make decisions and felt positive about their consequences.

fly-fishing for men with cancer.

Photo courtesy of Reel Recovery.

Jim, himself a two-time cancer survivor, found himself called to help ensure the success of future Reel Recovery retreats in Michigan. He now volunteers his time to help organize and raise funds for one Michigan retreat a year. Each retreat provides all the fishing equipment, lodging and meals (Jim gives the food five stars) free of charge for the participants, who are matched to a volunteer buddy during the day for fishing instruction. At points during the day and into the evening, the buddies take off while a trained psychosocial facilitator guides discussions called “Courageous Conversations.”

“Its equal parts group discussions and fly-fishing,” Jim says. “The idea is to have as many different experiences and viewpoints at the retreat as possible.”

Take the next step:

  • Find the Reel Recovery application and a medical release form here – be sure to use the drop down menu to select from dozens of retreats being held nation-wide, including the June 20-22, 2016 retreat at Ranch Rudolph near Traverse City, MI.
  • Learn more about support offered at the Comprehensive Cancer Center (PDF) and at the programs and activities available from the Cancer Support Community of Greater Ann Arbor.

Cancer-center-informal-vertical-sig-150x150The University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 1,000 doctors, nurses, care givers and researchers are united by one thought: to deliver the highest quality, compassionate care while working to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. The center is among the top-ranked national cancer programs, and #1 in Michigan according to U.S. News & World Report. Our multidisciplinary clinics offer one-stop access to teams of specialists for personalized treatment plans, part of the ideal patient care experience. Patients also benefit through access to promising new cancer therapies.