by Sheila Gardner

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July 24, 2009
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With a rod and a reel, cancer takes back seat

It's not about the cancer, it's about the fishing.

For nine men in various stages of cancer treatment and recovery, a few days angling at the Pleasant Valley Fly-Fishing Preserve offers a welcome respite.

The Reel Recovery participants arrived Tuesday as strangers for the most part, and left Thursday as friends.

"This is one enthusiastic bunch of guys," said Jim Norton of Gardnerville, a staff member for Reel Recovery, a national organization that hosts similar events across the United States.

The men - who came from California and Nevada to the free retreat - fish and talk.

"We call them 'courageous conversations,'" Norton said. "It's a group setting that encourages them to talk about their cancer, something men generally don't like to do. We go into our caves to get away from it."

The spirit of former organizer Jerry Crum permeated the Alpine County retreat.

Crum died June 2, 2008, of mantle cell lymphoma. He helped organize the fishing retreats for men and women over the past few years.

"This year's is dedicated to Jerry," Norton said. "His favorite quotation was, 'When I'm fly-fishing I forget I have cancer.'"

That sentiment was shared Thursday by Frank Wilkinson, 56, a participant from North Hollywood, Calif.

"I could live up here if I had the money," Wilkinson said. "I love the colors of the greens, the air is so clean."

Wilkinson caught a 19-inch rainbow trout.

"It made me feel great," he said. "I cast it, I caught it, and I reeled it in," he said. "It was very satisfying."

Each participant is paired with at least one "fishing buddy," volunteers from the High Sierra Fly Casters. Communications are set up by the Carson Valley Radio Club in case of emergencies.

A doctor and two paramedics were among the volunteers.

Wilkinson said he learned of the retreat from a woman who attends his church. He is in phase 4 of what he described as "not small cell lung cancer" that metastasized into bone cancer.

He was diagnosed last August and said he wants to use whatever time he has left "to live life as fully as possible."

"I worked real hard for a long time and didn't do much for myself," Wilkinson said.

He has learned over the years that each person has to be his or her own advocate.

Wilkinson was treated for bladder cancer in 2002 and said his doctor failed to tell him he needed to be seen regularly by an oncologist even though he appeared to be cancer-free.

"For any cancer patient, you need to be your own advocate. Do your homework, take notes, enlist people who can support you and get you to and from your appointments," Wilkinson said.

Norton said in the years he's helped at the fly-fishing retreat, he and the other volunteers always get back much more than they give.

"One overriding thing we get is their courage," Norton said.

"I've seen this for six years," he said. "We've had guys come in with bad attitudes - people made them come. Then we hear from their families after it's over, comments like, 'My husband is a changed man because of you guys.' It rubs off on the volunteers."

Norton said the experience reinforces the reality "this (cancer) could happen to any of us at any time."

Richard Sublett, 66, a retired Washoe County Sheriff's Office detective, was given up to 18 months to live when he was diagnosed in 1999 with multiple myeloma.

He calls himself a "poster child" for stem cell research.

"It saved my life," he said.

In the past 10 years, Sublett has survived cancer, a hip replacement and open heart surgery.

"It's a never-ending battle, but I'm still here," he said, reeling in his third fish in an hour.

"What keeps me going are the things I have to look forward to," Sublett said. "I haven't decided I have cancer yet."

Sublett said he was an "off and on" smoker and there was no history of cancer in his family.

"I never thought about it (cancer), and here I am," he said. "I decided I don't have cancer and I will just deal with what's going on in my body."

"Fishing feels great. You can focus on something else and forget what's going on in your life. I look forward, that's how I survive," Sublett said.

Norton said Pleasant Valley Fly-Fishing Preserve has hosted retreats for men, women and children.

Participants stay at the Creekside Lodge.

"All they have to do is show up," Norton said. "Everything else is taken care of."

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The Record Courier Updated Jul 24, 2009 04:57PM Published Jul 24, 2009 04:54PM Copyright 2009 The Record Courier. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.