When sorting through our nominations, Lisa Abel stood out. Each person that was nominated will forever hold a place in our hearts, and we hope for healing and peace for everyone. We’ll let Lisa tell her story…
You never know when your world will be turned upside down-but I learned exactly what that meant through a breast cancer diagnosis. On July 19, 2016 I turned 49 and it was the day I was told “Lisa I’m sorry I don’t have very good news for you.” The week leading up to confirmation of my diagnosis was filled with frantic testing, biopsies and imaging so my gut already knew I had cancer-what I didn’t expect was the severity. I had frequent imaging and ultrasounds in the previous 5 years and a mammogram 2 months earlier which had not shown any changes. What I detected as a ‘thickness’ in my right breast lead to a subsequent MRI and a Stage 3 breast cancer diagnosis.
I could write a novel on the twists and turns that I faced leading to the words ‘breast cancer’ but the reality was I couldn’t change the past-I had become a statistic- this was serious- and I was in for the fight of my life. I was not the woman who sat in the corner and cried about my diagnosis rather I faced it head on with a positive attitude and optimism. I was a Mom of a 19-yearold college student, and I knew my son needed me. Failure was not an option at this point in my life.
My treatment included surgery, four months of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation. It was never easy, but I tried to find the positive in breast cancer. Though I was fearful of the chemotherapy, I was the woman who shaved her hair when it began to thin-and found I had a perfectly shaped bald head. The optimist in me said I was saving money on a stylist-no color, no cut, no highlights-hair is an overrated accessory! Though my body took a beating from the drugs, I established a routine over those four months that I called “embracing cancer”. There was no feeling sorry for myself I kept my head high and a smile on my face taking one day at time.
Shortly after I began my radiation, I started to wonder how was I going to live beyond breast cancer? I was ready to get on with my life-but I had been in fight mode for a long time-what was next? I was still Lisa but a stronger version of my old self. I had not only been fighting breast cancer, but during the time of my treatment I was ending my marriage. I needed to heal and that is when I found my new love through an organization by the name of Casting for Recovery.
Casting for Recovery is a Non-Profit organization that provides outdoor retreats for women with breast cancer. The retreats are open to women of all ages, in all stages of treatment and recovery where the participants experience healing connections through the sport of fly fishing. The UPSTATE NEW YORK retreat is held on the grounds of the Tailwater Lodge in Altmar, New York. The retreat is free to the participants and staffed with experienced medical professionals, fly fishing instructors and alumnae. The goal of the retreat is to have these women leave the burden of cancer behind them for that 2 ½ days and find healing through the power of nature. For many-it’s the first time they’ve left their homes for a get-a-way since their diagnosis.
I was only three months off my active cancer treatments when I applied to be a participant at the 2017 Upstate New York retreat. Luckily, I was 1 of the 14 women selected to attend and spent 2 ½ days at the retreat which were exciting, emotional and extremely rewarding. At that time, I had no idea Casting for Recovery would become such a significant part of my recovery nor my life, and the day I stood in the Salmon River with my River Helper was a turning point in my life. I still recall the feeling of the warm sun hitting my face and when I closed my eyes to savor the moment, the moving water of the Salmon River erased the previous 10 months of my life. Like magic-the river made me feel normal again. I was feeling free of the pain that had entered into my life from a breast cancer diagnosis, and I quickly realized fly fishing had to become part of my being to help me live my life to the fullest.
After the retreat I dove into the sport head first. It didn’t come easy as I was still regaining my physical strength-but I was heading to the water-most days ending up fishless-but I was happy. I quickly learned this was not about fishing it was about enjoying the moments in the outdoors and being challenged with a new activity. I had discovered my stepping stone to recovery. Each fishing adventure brought me back to the same feeling I had on the Salmon River-freedom, happiness, capturing the beauty of the outdoors and I quickly understood the water was now my sanctuary-it had become my church-I was being healed physically, emotionally and spiritually each time I was in a river.
CfR has been my launch point for fly fishing but has had a larger impact on my life and I’m immersed as an enthusiastic volunteer for the organization. It’s become my mission to bring public awareness of the CfR Retreat Program and my dedication to CfR is purely to give back to the organization which has given so much to me. I pack my Fall and Spring with outreach events where I share my personal journey and how my new activity has helped me recover. My volunteer activities with CfR have expanded to staff positions and for me it’s like a complete cycle to have gone from participant to staff member. I like to say Casting for Recovery changes lives and I happen to be one of the women they’ve changed. Each retreat that I’m able to attend renews the same feeling that I experienced in 2017 and I have the privilege to watch 14 women transform as a river heals their wounds. It’s a contagious environment and the happiness flows as quickly as the Salmon River moves.
Though Casting for Recovery is a national non-profit organization, each retreat site is tasked with funding a portion of their event. Our 2020 Upstate New York retreat will bring us to our sixth year and be held June 18th-20th. Our outreach efforts are proving to increase awareness of the program and in 2019 our applicants peaked at the highest level since the Upstate NY programs inception in 2015. Each retreat will host 14 women which means those not chosen are asked to reapply in the subsequent year. Due to the continued growth of our program and the increase number of applicants we’d like to add an additional retreat, but that requires funding to support such an expansion.
When I threw myself into the public eye, I did so to educate them on breast cancer survivorship and the CfR program. Each presentation is emotional and it’s not uncommon to bring my audience to tears with the raw emotion of my journey. To this day, my eyes fill with tears and I pause before I speak when I talk about the first time I stood in the Salmon River. I wanted to learn how to fly fish but what I gained was HOPE and by having a fly rod placed in my hands the word ‘survivor’ has turned into ‘THRIVER’.
One out of eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. I did not go looking for cancer-it found me. Given the opportunity to change my circumstances of the last three years, I wouldn’t change a thing-my life was actually enhanced as the result of my breast cancer diagnosis. Breast cancer has brought wonderful people into my life and those individuals are now my close friends, supporters and mentors. We share a common language understanding the emotional, physical and financial pain that comes with the diagnosis. We know that our treatments are complete but the side effects still remain. We understand the need to live every moment to its fullest.
My health is ‘stable’ however I rotate doctor’s every three months and they keep a close eye on me. I found out cancer can be sneaky, so I won’t take a single day for granted. It’s the little things that mean the most to me-the cardinals singing, the sun shining, the Golden Retrievers snoring and the friends and family that love me and stand by my side.
Though this is lengthy, I provide the details for you to understand the direct impact the Upstate New York Casting for Recovery retreat has on the women who attend and more specifically on my journey. I would like you to consider the organization as your ambassador for the 2019 VIP Pink Night in September. I’m extremely proud to represent CfR and know that my work with the organization has just begun.
God willing that my health remains ‘stable’ I’ll continue educating the public about my experience and the program until I have covered all of Upstate New York. I plan on living the remainder of my days with a fly rod in my hands, a few fish at the end of my line and I promise I’ll be the woman in the river sporting her Casting for Recovery hat with the biggest smile on her face.
Thank you for your consideration!
Lisa Abel-Upstate New York Casting for Recovery
Volunteer Outreach Coordinator/Participant Coordinator