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Medical Adversity to Fly Fishing Redemption

Guest post by Phil Spratt, Orvis Festival Guide

Life is full of challenges and some of those challenges are medical related. This story is about the healing effects of fly fishing as a remedy to medical adversity.

We need to start at the beginning. I grew up at Shoreham by Sea in West Sussex. It was a great place to grow up. I had the sea in front of me and the South Downs behind me and I developed my love of the countryside, wildlife and fishing during those formative years.

I had a friend who loved fishing and he introduced me to sea fishing. This was conventional sea fishing with bait and I caught a variety of species. I fished exclusively in the salt. I dug my own bait (lugworm and ragworm) and found peeler crab. When I was 16 our family moved to Cambridgeshire. It was a shock. There were no hills and no sea. I had to switch to coarse fishing. I was told to get lighter line so I got some 8lb breaking strain line. That was light to me but I was laughed at and told to buy 1lb breaking strain.

In 2003 I moved to Hampshire, near to the coast. This was an opportunity to rekindle my love of sea fishing. I got all the gear to do conventional sea fishing. It was hard work and nothing like I remembered from Shoreham. Where were all the fish?

One day I was travelling through the glorious Meon Valley when I passed Meon Springs Fly Fishery. I was curious. But wait, isn’t fly fishing exclusive and only indulged in by the well-heeled and gentry? I thought no more but the curiosity remained. Eventually curiosity got the better of me and I opted for an experience day. It was a revelation. I was mobile, the tackle was light and you could see your quarry. More importantly you were in very direct contact with your quarry. This was very different to lugging beach casters, bait and a box full of weights. And I caught. Rainbow trout. Meon Springs is an excellent stillwater, is set in stunning scenery and has a catch and release option. Fisheries like Meon Springs are very important in introducing people to the delights of fly fishing.

Meon Springs had an open day and a saltwater fly fishing guide demonstrated double hauling and talked about fly fishing the salt for bass (not sea bass just bass – bass only live in the sea but can cope with a bit of brackish water so why add salt). This was great. I was hooked on fly fishing as a method and I could transfer what I had learned at Meon Springs to the salt. So I got some cheap tackle and it was off to the beach. The first trip was a shock to the system. I did everything wrong and I’m sure if researched properly I would have broken the world record for wind knots in a leader. It was back to the drawing board. I got some double hauling lessons at Meon Springs and I improved slowly. I started to catch – bass, mackerel and on one occasion a sea trout. As important has been making good friendships and having that salty fly fishing bond.

No mention yet of medical adversity I hear you say. Fast forward to 2019. I was fishing a competition in Cornwall in September 2019 and noticed my right arm was getting tired. On closer inspection I noticed that my bicep in my right arm (my casting arm) had wasted; the left arm was unaffected. The GP referred me to a specialist and I was diagnosed with FacioscapulohumeralDystrophy or FSH for short. It is the mildest of the dystrophies and I had a very mild form. A side effect was that I would tend to have a younger looking face – something that I have had to come to terms with!

How would it affect my fishing? I was due to go to Ascension Bay in Mexico for a week of fly fishing in November 2019. As it happened, I adapted. Even with a wasted bicep I could cast by using more body action. It is awkward at times but I manage perfectly well. And an irony is that I have caught bigger fish. Prior to my bicep wasting, my largest fish was a 9lb bass – very nice. I should add that I have never been fixated on big fish. I caught a 10lb Jack Crevalle in Mexico that pulled like a train but a bit of left arm bracing of the rod did the trick. Then I caught a 12 ½ lb pike, then a 14lb carp and then a 16lb carp.

Following the diagnosis although I could cast fine I didn’t want to spend all day casting as a competitor. At this time I was approached and asked if I would act as a guide in the Orvis Saltwater Fly Fishing Festival based around Chichester and Hayling Island in September 2020. Then Covid hit. However, there was a brief window between lock downs and the festival went ahead and was a great success. It is run in early September each year and has gone from strength to strength since. A beginner’s festival has been added in June and this too has proved very popular. It has been a great honour to have been involved with such a prestigious company as Orvis.

It was during the first beginner’s festival that I had an opportunity to try the Orvis H3 8# rod. Would it help me cast more easily? Would it be light in the hand? The answer was yes and yes. It was very easy to cast, had a smooth action and was very accurate. The first time I tried the rod I got a nice bass and that was an omen! I got one and have never looked back. I have added a 9# too and have used the rods in the UK and Cuba and the rods helped considerably as the ability to make a quick and accurate cast to a sighted fish can be the difference between success and failure.

So, the medical situation had been adapted to and all was well in the world. Unfortunately, the situation was not to remain so rosy. My most recent trip to Cuba was in November 2022. I rather stupidly fell off a platform while gardening in October 2022, jarred myself and put the trip in doubt. Four paracetamol a day was required to kill the pain. It was touch and go but I made it and had a great week. Prior to the trip (just to be on the safe side) I had an ultrasound scan as I had suspected kidney stones earlier. The scan showed a dilated kidney and my GP referred me for a bladder scan and a CT scan. I had the CT scan on Christmas Eve.

I had an appointment to get the result of the CT scan on 9 January 2023. The pain from the platform fall was easing and on 8 January, I stopped taking paracetamol and for the first time in about 10 weeks I was pain free. I was asked to go in early for the scan results. I could see my CT scan on the urologist’s screen. I then went through the pictures – there’s a healthy kidney, this is the other kidney and those are lymph nodes. Sorry, but you have cancer and have between 12-15 months to live. Looking on the bright side, I didn’t have any kidney stones. A further meeting with an oncologist confirmed the diagnosis. Chemotherapy would be palliative only and there was no cure. At this point things were somewhat bleak.

Through my work Bupa cover I was able to get a referral to an oncologist and this is where things started to look up. The diagnosis was confirmed but for the first time a new treatment called immunotherapy was raised. The plan would be to undertake a serious of chemotherapy cycles to shrink the tumours and then move onto immunotherapy, a relatively new treatment. Unlike chemotherapy, which attacks everything, good and bad, immunotherapy targets specific cancer cells and is referred to as a maintenance programme. Immunotherapy is not a cure but keeps the cancer at bay. How long it will be effective cannot be predicted but results from others undertaking the treatment are positive.

One thing I was determined to have from day one was a positive mindset and continue to enjoy life. I am very grateful for the support I get from my wife (who really looks after me), my employer and my close family and friends. My friends include my fishing friends, who have been very supportive. The funniest thing that was said to me when I was explaining what was happening and saying it was a long story was the reply – “don’t make it too long as you haven’t got long”! In a gallows humour type of way, that cheered me up.

Since the diagnosis I have continued to fish and have been supported by my fishing friends, who have rallied around. I was fortunate to have time off work while the chemotherapy was ongoing, and during this time I lost myself in the world of the fly fishing, not only off the river bank, stillwater or wading in the sea (the salt season being upon us) but also in my creative space at home tying the flies (both fresh and saltwater patterns) that I use to catch (hopefully). Losing myself in the creative process of tying, along with immersing myself in the thrill of the actual take gives a therapy that is perfectly tailored to me and runs perfectly alongside conventional medicine; an “escape” into a healthy meditative practice, time around supportive like-minded people, plus a huge boost of endorphins… All fantastic healers for the mind, body and spirit!

After 3 cycles I had a CT scan to see the process to date. My oncologist rang me and said the results were fantastic – the tumour had shrunk 75%, I had regained function in the affected kidney, the cancer in a lymph nodes was down plus a couple of other things I failed to register but which were good news. It was on to the next 3 cycles.

My last chemotherapy session was on 29 June, just before the Orvis Beginners Fly Fishing Festival on 1 & 2 July. Although I was fatigued the therapeutic allure of the sea and fly fishing ensured my participation.  We also had the most successful beginners festival in terms of fish caught ever and by some margin.  The highlight for me was standing in the sea next to one of the attendees who said ‘The trouble with the sea is that you don’t catch anything’ only to immediately hook a bass. 

Just over a month after the final session of chemotherapy it was time for the CT scan for the full 6 cycles.  That was done and an appointment was made with my oncologist in mid-August. I felt fully recovered from my chemo but what would the scan results be? I went into the meeting with optimism but didn’t allow myself to have too much optimism. The results were great. The tumour had disappeared and there were no signs of cancer. So, I’m in remission. It feels like a miracle. How much my positive mindset and spending time with friends fishing helped, I’ll never know. But somehow I’m sure it helped. A sort of placebo effect.

I now feel fully fit for the main Orvis Fly Fishing Festival at the beginning of September. Beyond that, I’m hopeful of going to Cuba in November 2023.

None of us can predict the future so my advice is to embrace life, always have a positive outlook, no matter how bleak the circumstance, and seize the day!

See you all in September!

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