Servicemembers fighting cancer find healing on the fly

By LEE TOLLIVER | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: March 28, 2014

Liz Springer is no quitter.

Shrugging off chilly Thursday morning air, she cast and cast and cast, determined to get a handle on the difficult art of fly fishing.

"Never give up," the Navy petty officer second class said, shoving frustration to the side with a smile. "I'll get it. I'll get it.

"Practice makes perfect, right?"

The 31-year-old knows a little something about determination - having endured in the past year many sessions of radiation, chemotherapy and surgery in her fight to beat stage-four brain cancer.

Learning to cast a fly rod?

"This is nothing, comparatively," Springer said. "I'm not going to let this get to me."

The Washington state native was being tutored through the efforts of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing - a national group "dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military personnel and veterans."

Thursday's program took place at the Dominion Power coal-burning station's warm-water discharge canal, known to local anglers as the Hot Ditch. Each of the three participants - there would have been more, but the program was postponed five times because of foul weather - was teamed with a volunteer coach.

"We do classroom sessions for fly-tying, knots and water safety. Lots of outings," said Portsmouth chapter spokesman Jim O'Brien. "We've been trying to get the word out better about the program, and it's coming around."

Given what the participants have gone through, they're not worried about mastering the intricate aspects of what is arguably the most difficult form of fishing.

"I've had to do chemo every day for seven weeks and radiation Monday through Friday for seven weeks... and I still have a month of that left," said Springer, who grew up fishing for salmon, halibut, catfish, trout and sturgeon before joining the Navy nearly seven years ago. "I'll have MRIs done every other month, and I have to go to Duke University Hospital every other month, so they can keep an eye on things."

Throughout her ordeal, Springer has remained upbeat - at least, most of the time.

"I got real upset when I gained a bunch of weight," she said. "That really got me down, but I've battled that. Nausea really gets to me.

"And I can't tell you how upset I was when they told me I couldn't re-enlist."

Springer, who will leave the Navy in June on a medical retirement, has spent her time at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital volunteering in the hematology department, spreading her infectious optimism.

"I want to help people get through what I'm going through," she said. "I'm going to live life to the fullest. I went skydiving, and I'm going to play golf tomorrow. My prognosis is really good. But if it all goes sour one day, I'm at peace and happy."

A few hundred feet down the canal bank, Rick Garcia seemed to have licked this fly-fishing thing. He had caught a speckled trout and was battling another.

Garcia, a 48-year-old Coast Guardsman, is not disabled but wants to start a Healing Waters chapter in Texas when he retires in the fall. "I work at the naval hospital and have worked with the Wounded Warriors Project, so this seemed right."

In between the two, Matt Bender - a 39-year-old Navy computer technician - was struggling.

"This is my second time trying this, and I'm actually doing worse," said the lymphoma patient.

Bender thought it would be a good way to relax, but he was rushing, getting discouraged, and not relaxing.

"I just need to slow down and practice more," he said.

After a while, Springer let out a scream. Her diligence had paid off.

"I got one!" she shouted, watching as O'Brien netted a small speckled trout. "It's not huge, but look at it. That's so awesome.

"I think I have this beat."

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