When it comes to finding local cancer support groups designed specifically for men, you won’t find many.
“Men by their nature are closed off and don’t naturally gravitate to talking about stuff like cancer. They are taught to be stoic — to tough it out. It used to be when you got your head dinged playing football you were told, ‘Get back in there, you got your bell rung, now go play!’ It’s just part of our nature to be strong, so men think that talking about things like cancer will be seen as weakness, even when deep down they are scared as hell,” says Tom Jans, a volunteer for Idaho 2 Fly, a local effort for men that mixes fishing and cancer support.
“Most of our guests — that is what we call our participants — come without any knowledge of fly fishing. A fellow I partnered with last fall was a 43-year Air Force veteran, and he had never held a fishing rod of any kind in his hand. Yet by the end of the weekend, we had him catching trout like a pro. More importantly, he turned to me as we were fishing on one of the first days and said, ‘I get it.’
“I teased him, ‘You get what? You haven’t caught a fish yet!’
“He answered, ‘I get what you guys are trying to do. I’ve been here all morning out in this beautiful stream, in these beautiful surroundings, and I haven’t thought about my cancer in four hours.’”
“That is the first step,” Jans says, “but the fishing is almost a hook, if you pardon the pun, to get people interested in attending our retreat.”
Fishing and therapy
David Lombardi, another Idaho 2 Fly volunteer, says the organization has found value with combining the sport with group therapy. “One of the great things about using fly fishing, especially when many of our guests are inexperienced with it, is that they are learning a new sport with new skills, and it is natural in that environment to ask for help. This openness carries over to the interactions our guests have throughout the weekend with each other and with our volunteers, even when they aren’t on the river.”
Dr. Richard “Dick” Wilson, a neurologist in Boise, helped establish Idaho 2 Fly in 2012 after having volunteered with Reel Recovery, a similarly styled national program based out of Massachusetts.
“Each retreat has five one-hour group sessions. In a sense it is therapy, but it is a therapy that is derived from the guests’ own personal communication with one another,” Wilson says. “During the course of the weekend, the questions get more in-depth and more personal. Sometimes, the men are in tears. We often hear that this is the first time they’ve ever talked about their disease. Guys don’t like to talk about personal stuff.”
“The guests are partnered with ‘fishing friends’ who are there to guide the guests with casting on the river, but more importantly, they are there to be a listening ear. We have very skilled volunteers who know what to say, when to say it, and when to shut up. This helps relationships develop on the river,” Wilson says.
More than a retreat
That relational aspect doesn’t end when the weekend is over. Part of Idaho 2 Fly’s mission is to build an ongoing community of support for men with cancer.
“We’ve built our organization in Idaho to have additional events after the retreats to build community. This includes reunion picnics where former guests and volunteers get back together again, and even bring their families, to help stay connected. At these gatherings, we see the men schedule other fishing trips and get-togethers with each other,” Lombardi says.
The organization also works with local fly fishing businesses, such as Anglers Fly Shop in Boise, to create opportunities for the guests and volunteers to get more training in fly fishing. This year, Anglers hosted a six-course, fly fishing 101 class specifically for Idaho 2 Fly participants.
Bob Barney, of Boise, is one of those guests who found value in the retreat as well as the fishing this past July at the Wild Horse Creek Ranch in Mackay.
“I never was a fly fisherman until I was invited on one of the trips. Now I’m taking lessons and buying gear and really getting into it. But the great thing is, I thought the whole weekend was about fly fishing, but it really turned into more than that for me. It was a gathering of people with a common illness getting together,” Barney says.
“We would go out fishing, each one of us with our own professional guide that had volunteered to be on this weekend trip. There were 15 of us who had different cancers. We would come back from fishing, enjoy a meal and then sit in a circle with a facilitator. At first, we were just answering simple questions like, ‘Who are you and where are you from?’ and ‘What type of cancer do you have?’ Ultimately we got to a place where we were answering questions about how we felt about our cancer and we were openly sharing with each other. It was a fantastic experience to see how people can help each other by sharing our stories with each other,” Barney says.
Barney’s battle with bladder cancer is going well. His cancer is in remission, and he visits his oncologist for quarterly checkups. (At the time of this interview, he was even driving to Stanley with some new gear to catch some fish.)
Learning to live
Jeremy Kitzhaber, of Meridian, was a guest at an October retreat at the Three Rivers Ranch in Ashton.
His battle with a very rare, stage four appendix cancer has been difficult with surgeries and chemotherapy.
“My cancer is a one in a million type of cancer. There is only one other person in town that has the same cancer I do. I’m also only 46 years old and was diagnosed at 43,” Kitzhaber says. “As much as I hate the idea of other people going through the hardship of a terminal illness like mine, it’s nice to be able to talk to other men who understand me. At our retreat, there were four other men that were roughly my age and were also struggling, battling and going through chemotherapy, surgeries or other treatments.”
The experience changed how Kitzhaber looked at his cancer.
“I realized that don’t have to beat this,” Kitzhaber shared at the retreat. “I can’t beat my cancer, it is terminal — there is nothing out there that will cure me. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to stop fighting it but after talking with folks that weekend, I realized I wanted to focus on how to live — I want to be with my wife, do things with my kids and enjoy every moment that I have the health to actually go do things.”
Investing in men’s lives
Fly fishing isn’t the cheapest sport to get started in, neither are weekend retreats at some of the most prime fishing spots in Idaho. Robert DeLong, of Garden City, had heard about Idaho 2 Fly but assumed that it would cost him too much money.
“My dad was a very frugal man and so for the longest time, he didn’t want to go,” his son Conner says. “Then he found out it was completely free for the participants and that Idaho 2 Fly gets donations so that those with cancer don’t have out-of-pocket expenses to attend.”
DeLong was near the end of his cancer battle when he participated in the retreat last October.
“Dad was extremely frail at the time, but he had partners at the event that helped him through the weekend,” his son says. “It wasn’t easy for my dad to talk about what he was going through, but when he was put in a surrounding like that, with other men that were in similar situations, it made him more comfortable to open up.”
DeLong died from esophageal cancer just six months after he was diagnosed and just two weeks after the retreat. In his obituary, his family encouraged friends to make donations in Robert DeLong’s name to Idaho 2 Fly.
Conner DeLong has also established a yearly golfing tournament sponsored by his Phi Gamma Delta fraternity at the University of Idaho to raise funds for Idaho 2 Fly.
It is called, “Wish You Were Here.”
Learn more about Idaho 2 Fly at Idaho2fly.com.
This is the third article in a five-part series about local organizations that formed to help patients and families cope with cancer diagnoses. Look for part four next Sunday in Explore. Chad Estes is a Boise photographer and writer who is an active cancer advocate. His project, “The Reveal Mission,” showcases stories of breast cancer survivors and fighters.