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COVID-19 canceled Idaho group's cancer support retreats. Now they're back on the water

Idaho Statesman logo Idaho Statesman 10/27/2021 Nicole Blanchard, The Idaho Statesman

Oct. 27—Two years after its last retreat, an Idaho nonprofit has returned to its mission: to unite men with cancer with each other and the outdoors.

Idaho2Fly is, at its core, a support group for men who have cancer. The men gather to discuss their diagnosis and learn how to better communicate with their loved ones, all while taking time to fly fish on Idaho's many waterways.

"The fishing is just a mechanism to break things up between meetings," said Chris Preston, guest coordinator and treasurer for Idaho2Fly, in a phone interview. "You're in a beautiful place and guys can ... have more meaningful discussions about how they can support one another when they're going through their cancer."

Typically the group holds three multiday retreats each year where groups of about 15 men can take time to develop trust and hone their fishing craft under the guidance of volunteer expert anglers. But COVID-19 meant no more retreats for the group, whose guests are largely immunocompromised.

After its last retreat in October 2019, the group had to find a new way to forge connections.

From fly to Zoom

Idaho2Fly had to rethink one of the main components of its framework — the fly fishing retreat — during the first year of the COVID pandemic. But it didn't stop the group from helping men with cancer connect. Starting in the spring of 2020, the organization set up support groups that met via Zoom.

Russell Massey, a 61-year-old from Nampa, was first introduced to the nonprofit during this time.

"Last year, I was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer and my doctor gave me some information about the group and I made a phone call and took it from there," Massey said in a phone interview. "It's more of a support group than anything. This is my first time dealing with cancer."

Keith Murphy, president of Idaho2Fly, said virtual meetings like the ones Massey attended have been a success, but the experience is not quite the same as it was pre-COVID.

"Our main focus is in supporting men, getting them to understand they're not in this battle alone and getting them to open up and talk about this," Murphy said. "Given the limitations, we're trying to still do that. It's difficult."

Murphy said about 4,000 Idaho men are diagnosed with some form of cancer each year. The pandemic has impacted Idaho2Fly's ability to reach those men, Murphy said, especially if they're in the midst of chemotherapy or radiation treatments.

"If men are still in treatments, they're immunocompromised," Murphy said. "We don't want to be the ones making their journey any tougher than it is."

Support group returns to the outdoors

After months of remote meetings, Idaho2Fly felt safe to pilot an abridged version of its retreat. This one would be a single day of entirely outdoor activities to ensure ' safety. A group of 16 people, including guests and volunteers, met on Oct. 9 at Julia Davis Park, where they opened with a discussion before wading into the Boise River.

For Massey, it was the first time he'd met anyone from Idaho2Fly in person.

"Seeing the person face-to-face and getting to shake their hand ... having that emotional connection and touch of meeting that person live ... it was just great," Massey said. "People really cared. It meant a lot to me."

It was also the first time Massey had tried fly fishing. With the help of the volunteers, he reeled in a rainbow trout.

Preston and Murphy said many of the participants balk at the fly fishing aspect if they're not anglers, but fishing skills aren't a prerequisite.

Preston said the event went "swimmingly." According to Murphy, one of the retreat participants has already gone back out on the water with a guide he met during the event. Massey also got hooked on fly fishing.

"Next day I went and bought me a fly pole and all the stuff that goes with it," he said.

Murphy and Preston are cautiously optimistic that they can move forward with this model — single day, all-outdoor meetings — and potentially resume multiday retreats with sign-off from guests and their doctors in the future.

Though the outdoor element of the group helps the participants open up, all of the men said they were happy to have any kind of support system in place.

"The group itself — I love the group," Massey said. "When I was diagnosed with cancer, I didn't know who to talk to. It was a real hard thing for me, emotionally, to go through that. I appreciate all the guys who are there to help me."

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