Fly Fishing, Chemo, and Me

There are three good reasons not to read this particular blog entry.  First, you may be like me and try to avoid stories about people’s bouts with cancer.  I can’t say I blame you. Second, when I mention how my faith has helped me through it, you may feel like religious experiences don’t belong in a fly fishing blog.  I get it, no worries.  And finally, any helpful information that you might hope to get about my fishing foray this past weekend could be easily written off as dumb luck.  Whatever the case, if any of these thoughts give you pause, this would be a good time to opt out and read one of the other great articles on this blog.

If you are still with me so far, thanks for hanging in there.  Even though for a while, I wanted to leave my battle with cancer out of my blog posts, it’s become so integral to who I am now, it’s been hard to write around it. I think it will be therapeutic for me to share it and maybe it will resonate with others who are in the same drift boat.

Two summers ago, while fishing in Colorado, I had to go to the emergency room twice because of copious amounts of blood in my urine.  A first CT scan revealed three kidney stones; a second CT scan revealed only two kidney stones, leading the ER doctor to conclude that the troubling stone had passed.  He advised me to check with a urologist when I got back to Boston.  Assumptions were that I was just having issues with kidney stones, even though there was no pain associated with the issue of blood.  That should have been a red flag.

Long story short, it took a local urologist over a year to find a three cm mass in my left kidney, most likely malignant. I upgraded my urologist and that kidney and its ureter were removed in early December, 2020. The prognosis is that there is a 50 % chance that the cancer will return to either my bladder or other organs of my body, the latter being much more serious and more difficult to treat.

There is no obvious reason why I have cancer.  There’s no history at all of cancer in my family.  I’m not overweight.  I’ve endeavored to stay in decent cardio-vascular shape all my life.  I’ve never smoked cigarettes, consumed alcoholic beverages, or taken illegal drugs.  It’s a wonder I have any friends, eh?

My introduction to a special club.

To learn that I had cancer was a shock to me, and I stayed on the edge of denial until it was confirmed with a biopsy.  I kept hoping for the best, that it was just scar tissue from the stones, but instead it was a tumor; that it was stage one, but instead it was stage three; that I’d be treated with promising new immunotherapy drugs, but instead it would be toxic chemo treatments.

The cancer diagnosis brought me face-to-face with my own mortality for the first time in my life.  How much longer do I have to live?  Will my end be slow or fast, painful or not much pain?  How will this affect my wife and family?  Why is this happening to me?  And sadly, yes, the question crossed my mind several times if I’d be able to continue fly fishing.

In March, three small, new tumors were found in my bladder which were zapped by my vigilant urologist. In April, I began three months of weekly infusions of a “soft” chemo treatment at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.  Since I only have one kidney, and chemo is really hard on kidneys, they began treating me with two chemicals that aren’t quite as harsh on the kidney. This will reduce the likelihood of recurrence by 10%.

There have been four major sources of comfort during this time: faith, family, friends, and fishing.

Perfect water level in this South Central Massachusetts freestone.

Since I was a freshman in college, there has been nothing more important to me than my faith in Christ. This relationship has been the foundation of my life, and I have never regretted that.  When I found out about the cancer, my first question was, of course, “Why me, Lord?” But over the years, I’ve learned to trust Jesus and even give Him thanks in difficult circumstances, which is what my wife and I did soon after the diagnosis.  This freed us up to begin to trust Him while knowing that the outcome might not be what we would hope for.

Different people have different ways of coping with inevitable health issues.  For me, knowing that my Savior loves me, cares about me, and knows what’s best for me and my family whether I live or die, has given me peace that is beyond comprehension during this time.

The care and love shown by family and friends has been amazing and up-lifting.  A friend gave us $13,000 to pay for all our out-of-pocket medical costs. Gifts, cards, phone calls, meals, and assurances of prayer have been like a warm blanket to our souls.

My son with a nice brown trout.

Our four adult children have walked through this with us every step of the way.  They have been so supportive and encouraging. As an example, on Friday afternoon we received a great surprise.  The doorbell rang and I went to check on whatever package that Amazon was delivering.  Instead, it was our son Will who lives in Chicago, standing at the door with enough clothes in his bag for a weekend visit.  We couldn’t have been more shocked, surprised, or delighted.

Which leads me to the benefits of fishing.  I already had a trip planned for Saturday morning with Doover2 and an MIT nuclear physicist. They were both happy to have Will come along with us.

All my chemo treatments are scheduled for Tuesdays.  By the time the weekend comes around, I’ve been feeling good enough to spend some time on the river. I’ve been able to go out each weekend since I’ve started chemo.  But each week I seem to have a little less stamina and energy.  Nonetheless, it’s been so motivational for me to have something to look forward to each week.  As you know, time on the river is a great way to get your mind off things and enjoy the beauty of the nature.

This past Saturday, we fished a freestone river in south central Massachusetts.  It suited all of us to just make it a half day of fishing.  We got on the river at 7:30 am and left it at 11 am. The water level was perfect and we had the whole section to ourselves.  Of course, who wants to fish nearby when there are four guys out there already?

The bite was slow at first.  I felt like I was detecting some nippy little bites on the tightline setup I was using.  Finally, I got a serious take and brought a nice-sized fall fish to the net.  I took it over for Will to see because I don’t think he had ever encountered one before.  His comment was, “Is a fall fish one that takes the blame for all the other fish?”  I wished I had thought of that one.

After the fall fish, I caught a brown, rainbow, and brook trout consecutively, the Massachusetts grand slam.  The fish seemed to like a Pat’s Rubber Legs and a sexy Walt’s worm equally well. Eventually I switched to a squirmy wormy and picked up two more rainbows and a hefty brook trout that went for over 16”.

This hefty brook trout found my net.

My MIT professor friend grew up fly fishing in Great Britain, but his experience was limited to dry fly fishing, which wasn’t being productive last Saturday morning.  After I caught two trout in a seam that he had just left, he became interested in tightlining.  He picked it up fast.  I mean, if you can do world class research in nuclear physics, you stand a good chance of being able to grasp tightlining. There were some active fish in the tail end of a pool in front of us.  After just a little coaching, and a lot of luck getting his line out from some tree limbs, he brought a nice brown trout to the net.

Will tried a few different spots before he came across a hungry brown, probably the biggest brown of the day at 16”.  Doover2 worked one of the same runs that I had had success in and managed to bring three rainbows to hand on a tan mop fly.

By the time 11 am rolled around, we had worn out that stretch of river pretty well.  I think we were all ready to get back to Boston to fulfill our domestic duties.  But it was a very good morning with everyone hooking up.  Just what I needed.

I had another chemo treatment this past Tuesday.  Five down, three to go.  I’m planning to get out on the river again this Saturday.

Thanks for reading my story.  It’s been helpful just to get it out there.  Maybe you have a story along these lines too.  I’d love to read about it in the comments section below.

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24 thoughts on “Fly Fishing, Chemo, and Me

  1. Bill, so sorry to hear of your troubles. Sounds like you have a great bunch to support you through these tough times. I lost my dad last nov 1st to cancer. Worst time of my life… fishing sure did help as I would talk to him while fishing even though he wasn’t there.. made me laugh at times and brought me to tears at others. I am wishing you a speedy recovery so you have many more years of fishing and time with family and friends. And of course your great stories we get to read on the blog.
    God speed bill and keep on tightlineing!!!

    Regards,
    Steve k

    1. Thanks for sharing your story with me, Steve. It somehow helps to know what others have gone through. Nothing takes the isolation away like knowing that someone in some way is journeying with me.

      1. Bill thank you for sharing your inspirational story and personal challenge, it’s never easy to write about personal obstacles. Faith, family, friends & fly fishing are great foundations of support. Many of us have been through this battle, either directly or indirectly and we are here for you. Thoughts and prayers go to you and your family.

        1. Gary K, thanks for your note and your support. I’m just beginning to realize how the bond of fly fishing that we share on this blog extends much wider and deeper than I expected.

  2. Hang tough Bill. I know a guy on my local river who shows up everyday. He has silliest issues. Fishing is what keeps him going

    1. Thanks, Jack J! There’s a lot to be said for just showing up. That sounds like a good goal right now.

  3. The therapeutic effect of fishing is amazing…catching or not…does it really make a difference?
    Being on the water with friends,family a plus! You and family in our prayers daily. Picking grandson up at 8:15 to fish before it gets hot….

    1. Thanks, Dave. We definitely appreciate the prayers. And, for the thousandth time, thanks for getting me started with fly fishing.

  4. Bill. A prayer for you each night will accompany my other prayers. I have new friend I met fly fishing here in Rhode Island who is currently undergoing treatment for
    bladder cancer but I still cant imagine how that news must make one feel. I thank you for sharing as it certainly helps keep all things in perspective. Good luck with your remaining treatments. God Bless you and your family.
    Bob

  5. Robert, I’ll bet I have the same kind of carcinoma as your new friend. Basically, I have bladder cancer that originated in the lower part of the kidney. Thank you for your prayers; they mean a lot to me.

  6. Bill, excellent story and my thoughts are with you as you undertake this journey with cancer. Both my parents had cancer, and I’m familiar with the drills, procedures, the ups and downs. Focusing on the spiritual element does help those who hold this dear. To me, fishing is simply an extension of one’s spirituality, as being at or on the water is a form of meditation where time ceases. Whether I’m fishing or catching, it’s never boring. Thanks for sharing this day and enabling us to live it vicariously.

  7. It takes guts, faith, and heart to go through this and to share it. Thanks for telling us about your experiences!

    1. Thanks, Stephen. Your comment, and those of others, makes me glad I took the leap to share it.

  8. While I came to different conclusions on the matter of religion and faith via my own trials and tribulations, I recognize that we are mortally here for a much shorter time than we realize. Or father time has some magical sadistic way of speeding up that damn clock of his as we get older… trying to get us out of the way perhaps for his next victims? Regardless, I applaud whatever people find that helps them through these very personal and difficult times when it is easy to realize how alone, yet discover how connected we are at the same time. Both of these conditions are priceless in guiding however little or or much time we have left and what to do with it.

    I just finished a round of more or less orthopedic “repairs”(?) that I hope will improve and extend my ability to enjoy the great outdoors and feeling of physical adeptness in work and play (there really shouldn’t be much difference, considering the time we have or don’t) I have underappreciated much of my adult life, culminating in a knee replacement ((first of probably 2 at least on my life calendar) 6 wks ago. But last wknd I managed to wade the Souhegan for a whopping 75 ft or so (a gentle stretch) without breaching my hip boots (much anyway) in just over an hour. It was a strain but it showed me I will be able to do it again, and more and better, and other rivers. I also traversed a favorite sand flat near home, for the 2nd time in a week, and waded a tidal channel at its edge and produced my first schoolies of the season. I didn’t catch any trout on the Sou, but I did catch a few moments of glory before I exited the water. Its all about fishing, but its not all about the fish is the take away (again.. still). That’s MY excuse for not catching much at least.. haha..

    Always enjoy your blogs (though I want to squeeze your ear lobe in my nippers til you spill the locations you seem to do so well at… smirk…). Glad you are finding your way through the mostly uncharted map of health challenges any of us can face and hope you have plenty of time ahead to blog about these places you treasure so much and share so well (except their locations… ahem). Maybe some day I will stumble on you, or vice versa, at some undisclosed stretch of stream. We may be best to stay away from religious topics…. or maybe not. We do have one of, or perhaps THE greatest religions of all time in common for certain… reverence for nature and love of the rod.

    Tite lines, good thoughts and prayers (however assembled and whoever directed to), toasts to the future, past, and present, and whatever else makes your day better.

    My best to you, your family, and friends (especially the ones that own a fly rod)

    Doug Carver

  9. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Doug. And congratulations on the rehab progress you are making. Sounds like your quality of life is improving after your orthopedic repairs. That’s a lot to be grateful for. I hope we do get to meet someday on the river, but be sure that I’ll stay at greater-than-arm’s-length from your nippers. I’d look funnier than I already do with pierced earlobes. Besides you’ll get more out of me with bribes of Popeyes chicken.

      1. Doug, we’ll do it when I feel a little better. This last treatment has weakened me a good bit. You know I’m serious when I turn down a Popeyes’ offer.

  10. Thank you for sharing with us, Bill.

    I’ll be praying for you and your family, and I both admire and appreciate the strength and support those four Fs are providing to you as you face this test.

    Walt

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