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Fly Fishing as Cancer Therapy - How it can help women avoid a common side effect of treatment

On Saturday, Prothero and seven other women will take a fly-fishing trip down the Yakima River. The women have all had breast cancer. Dr. Sandra Vermeulen, a radiation oncologist at Northwest and avid fly fisher for 13 years, recruited them for the outing.

Vermeulen and her husband have fished rivers and streams in Spain, England, Washington and Idaho. The activity is engrossing, the scenery beautiful, she says. But Vermeulen has a more specific goal in mind.

Fly-fishing, with its emphasis on arm and shoulder motions that guide the fly to rest gently on the surface of the water, can help women who’ve had breast cancer avoid a common side effect of treatment.

Lymphedema causes painful swelling in the arms and upper body and can lead to permanent loss of mobility. About 1 in 5 women who’ve had breast cancer will get lymphedema, and exercise is one way to prevent it.

“It really isn’t about catching a fish or about the float trip on the river,” Vermeulen said. “A lot of them are still traumatized by their whole cancer ordeal. It’s the idea of taking these women out of the hospital, out of their community, back to a more basic look at life. And, at the same time, you can give them a skill that’s good for promoting their arm health.”

On Tuesday, before practicing their casting on the lawn, the women learned about waders, rods and reels. They passed around a kit packed with flies. “They look like earrings,” one woman remarked. Prothero doesn’t burst out laughing like the other novices in her group when she talks about fly-fishing. She speaks reverently about a sport she watched her uncles perform on the rivers of Washington and Montana, awestruck by their mastery.

“That was for grown-ups,” said Prothero. “I just didn’t think I could do that. That’s a real art.” Now, at 65, Prothero is preparing for her first attempt at luring fish to a fly. “My uncle always said, ‘I’m going to take fish on flies or I’m not going to take them at all,'” she said. Her husband, never a fan of fly-fishing, told her that if she caught a fish in the river, he’d use it for bait on his deep-sea expeditions.”What a toad,” Prothero joked.

Eleanor Stallcop-Horrox finished her radiation treatments a week ago. Two years ago in October, her husband died of lymphoma, a cancer that invades the lymph nodes. When Vermeulen heard that Stallcop-Horrox also lost her mother this year, she suggested the fly-fishing trip. “She said, ‘Oh my gosh, you need a break.'”

A member of the Seattle Opera Chorus, she had never contemplated fly-fishing. “It’s not exactly something you long to do, but (Vermeulen) is pretty enthusiastic,” Stallcop-Horrox said. “I am looking for positive steps forward, so I thought what the heck.” A floating trip down the Yakima also means paying off a debt owed to her alma mater.

“I went to Central (Washington University) and floating was kind of a rite of passage when I was there. If you had not floated the Yakima, they would call you an RV, a river virgin. “I’m 51 years old, and I’m finally losing my virginity.”


Casting for Recovery, a national organization based in Vermont, also offers fly-fishing trips around the country for women with breast cancer. For information, go to

P-I reporter Julie Davidow can be reached at 206-448-8180 or

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