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‘Reel Recovery’: Men With Cancer Find Camaraderie At The Lake

Robert Wilson is watching the water with a fishing pole in hand. This morning he’s only concerned with catching a fish. That, and taking the five pills a day that are an alternative to chemotherapy.

Wilson is at a free Reel Recovery Retreatin southern Indiana. Besides learning how to fish, it’s a chance for Wilson to talk about his cancer with 13 other men who understand.

For the last nine years, Wilson has been dealing with stage four prostate cancer. The disease costs a lot of money to treat, but for men struggling with it, the hardest part can come from the social isolation that sometimes follows. Wilson says he doesn’t really talk about it much with family anymore.

“They’ll say, 'you in remission, you’re going to be alright, don’t tell anybody you’ve got cancer anymore,'" he says. "How you know? I get so mad, they think they know more about this than they do.”

Outside of this fishing retreat, most of the men cope with the daily activities they have to do to live: painful biopsies, hospital stays, chemotherapy sessions, dealing with insurance companies.

All that creates worry. And most of these men don’t have other male friends back home who have cancer or are cancer survivors. Wilson has been single since his diagnosis. He didn’t think any woman would want to have a partner who can no longer work. Before his diagnosis and treatment, Wilson was a floor technician, or the guy who rips up and puts down floors in hospitals, houses, wherever.

“I was a master of my craft," he says. "But now, it’s hard for me to get down on my knees.”

That’s because the radiation treatment targeted his pelvis, making his bones ache, making it harder to walk. He’s now on disability.

For men like Wilson, all the worries just fester, says Michael Lubeach, who organized the retreat.

“They will withdrawal from their friends, and some of their friends withdraw from them, and then they commiserate and think that’s all there is to it,” Lubeach says. “It’s a macho thing, and we try to break that barrier down.”

Leo Link is 74, and had prostate cancer, too. That’s now gone but last summer, doctors took out a tumor in his left lung the size of a grapefruit. And now he might have cancer in his right lung. He’ll find out next week.

Link’s family has been supportive, and when he was in the hospital and too sick to see anyone, friends would sit in the waiting room and let him know they were just there.

“I never get tired of giving testimonial with regards to my recovery; I never get tired of answering the questions,” says Link.

He considers himself lucky. Unlike chronic conditions that can slowly kill people – like diabetes and cardiovascular disease – sometimes cancer doesn’t take that much time. Link says that’s always on his mind.

“Just six weeks ago, I was sitting in church with somebody who had just gotten back from his sister's funeral from cancer, and just making general conversation," he says. "And about a week later, he wasn’t in church because he had stage three cancer. And within 30 days, he’d passed away.  And that’s not an isolated situation. My situation is — the recovery is more isolated.”

While the retreat’s days are full of fly fishing, the evenings are for conversations. Ted Larrison, a retired social worker, leads these talks, and says they help participants break down the social behaviors that are expected of men, even among family.

“Most of the guys are taught, don’t show pain, don’t act afraid, don’t cry and so, what are you left with," he says. "That’s one of the powers of this retreat, because we say we’re going to lay those rules aside and talk openly.”

And that’s what participants say makes this retreat so valuable. Wilson says it’s a safe space to talk about their emotions, without having to worry about seeming weak.

And the 14 men here at the lake get it.

“I can relate to guys that are here," Wilson says. "I can open up and talk to them, because they’re experiencing the same thing I’m experiencing."

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.

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