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Amy Donaldson, Deseret News

MIDWAY — Some dreams are held so long and so tightly that when they come true, they don't live up to a lifetime of longing.

That would not be the case for Deborah Hart.

Fly-fishing was a dream born in her childhood, and like the fish swimming in the Provo River on this sunny Sunday morning, it stayed just below the surface of her life, always tempting her but was never really within her grasp.

"I grew up in California, and we went (fishing) in the Sierras," said the Midway resident. "My brother and I and my mom would fish in the lake, and my dad would go off and fly-fish on the Walker River. Years later, I saw 'A River Runs Through It,' and I thought, 'I really, really need to do that.' "

But like many wives and mothers, she put her dreams aside just a day at a time — until that turned into years, then decades. She moved to Utah at the urging of her brother, and one day they drove through the Heber Valley.

"I saw the Provo and thought, 'I need to be in there,'" she said, grinning as the water of the Provo River rushed passed her waders.

It took breast cancer to finally get her to actively pursue fly-fishing. Diagnosed in 2009, she heard about a program that allowed women dealing with breast cancer to participate in a fly-fishing retreat — Casting for Recovery.

She applied last year for a retreat in Montana and wasn't accepted. Then this summer, at what she called a low point, she got a call that she'd been invited to the first Casting for Recovery retreat in Utah.

"It is really special having it here where I live," she said. "I couldn't get over it. It brought me a lot of joy."

Not nearly as much joy, however, as catching a 14-inch fish on her first fly-fishing trip did.

"I have never had a fish like that!" she said, raising an arm overhead and whooping as her new friends applauded her catch with laughter and congratulations.

In moments like this, one of many during the retreat, cancer no longer casts a shadow over her life.

"It's really a connection back with my dad," she said. "He passed away about six years ago. So being able to do this ... fly-fishing is so active. You're not just standing there waiting. You're moving; you're with the water; you're part of it."

The premise of Casting for Recovery is about helping women heal physically. Started in 1996 in Vermont, the retreats were the idea of a breast cancer reconstructive surgeon and a professional fly fisher. The idea was that the physical demands of fly-fishing would help heal the tissue damaged by breast cancer and its treatments.

Casting for Recovery has grown into a national organization and has evolved into much more than physical therapy.

"Part of this is fly-fishing, but the other part is the women," said Hart. "It's been very healing. There is a lot more here than just learning how to fly-fish."

The retreats allow the women to submerge themselves in information about the disease and also to lose themselves in the affection of new friends, as well as giving many a new hobby.

For once, they are not explaining what chemo brain is, why they have dry mouths or how a masectomy and removal of lymph nodes ruined the movement of their arms. For just a few beautiful days, they are surrounded by women who understand how cancer ravages lives and how the treatment ravages bodies.

"Meeting so many neat people is what I will take from this," said JoAnne Brown, a middle school teacher who was diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago. "People who have this attitude of 'I'm going to move on and I'm going to do this.'"

Brown caught 31/2 fish in 10 minutes Sunday morning.

"Long-distance release," she said, laughing about the one that got away. "That counts, right? This is just an amazing feeling. It's a chance to put yourself in a whole different place than you've been. Well, for me it's been the last year. I can just be part of the universe again."

She said the fact that Casting for Recovery puts the women in a river helps them put a frightening and often overwhelming disease in perspective.

"It focuses you in on the moment," Brown said. "You're not thinking about what's going to happen tomorrow, what's going to happen next year. It's just you and the fish. It's so cool. ... There is something about standing in the river that makes it more tactile, more real. You're just a part of everything. I'm a part of nature."

That feeling of hope, of peace and of joy is exactly the gift organizers seek to impart to participants. The women must apply to be part of Casting for Recovery, but none of them have to pay for the opportunity, thanks to tireless fundraising and support of organizations like the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

Maria Bodkin is a 26-year survivor of breast cancer and an avid fly-fisher. She got involved with Casting for Recovery and was asked to oversee Utah's first retreat last weekend.

As a woman who waited until her 60s to take up fly-fishing, she knows firsthand how the sport can ease any pain.

"I knew that when they hit the water they will be transcended into a different place," she said. Bodkin was impressed with the support of the national organization, but also the regional and local volunteers who show up to teach the women how to fly-fish and then fish with them on Sunday.

"I haven't seen this kind of dedication to volunteering since I worked in a hospital during the Vietnam War," she said. "This (retreat) offers them the chance to get information, to ask questions and realize there are resources out there, support that they might not have had. I would have liked to have had that kind of support when I had my cancer."

The support, the friendship, the fishing are all part of why Casting for Recovery works.

"They get empowerment," Bodkin said. "They get control. They say, 'Hey, I can do this.' It's very enlightening to them."

And very uplifting.

"I have connected with some women who've gone through a lot of the issues that I'm dealing with, and we're going to keep in touch," said Hart, stopping to cheer on a friend who was battling a particularly feisty fish. "It's such a joy to have that. ... And this will be a memory every time I come fly-fishing."

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