Rainbow Stage performer keeps living while she's dying

Catherine Wreford performs on stage every night, and nobody in the audience knows she is dying.

Catherine Wreford says performing helps cope with terminal cancer diagnosis

Catherine Wreford (left) with Joanne Schiewe (right) were both diagnosed with the same cancer. Schiewe has since passed away. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

Catherine Wreford performs on stage every night, and nobody in the audience knows she is dying.

The Winnipeg native has performed on stages throughout North America, including Broadway. But after being diagnosed with brain cancer in 2013, she decided to come home.

"I have what's called anaplastic astrocytoma, which will turn into what [Tragically Hip lead singer] Gord Downie has, is the easiest way of explaining it," Wreford told CBC News.

Wreford gave birth to her daughter, Quinn, just five weeks before being diagnosed. After a CT scan showed a mass in her brain, surgeons decided to operate. They found the mass was "bigger than my surgeon's fist, is what he told us after he did the surgery."

Unfortunately, this type of brain cancer is not easily treated, Wreford said. "After they did the biopsy and everything they told me I had two to six years, but nobody really knows."

While treatment can shrink the tumour, it always returns, usually in a different form.

"I did radiation and chemotherapy but they just don't know when it will return," Wreford said. "So when it returns they'll do more chemo or, if I qualify for some trial, I'll get into that trial."

'Sometimes [brain cancer] is invisible. When you see me on stage, you don't see that I have this horrible thing that's killing me while I'm living.' - Catherine Wreford

After learning of her diagnosis, Wreford decided to keep living while she is dying. She credits performing for helping her do just that.

"[Performing] is my coping mechanism, I think. Even when I was in radiation therapy — this is in the States — I booked a ticket for the very last day of my radiation therapy and prepared all of my songs and scripts and stuff to audition for [the role of] Ulla in The Producers at Rainbow Stage because I just needed to distract myself," Wreford said.

"I showed up bald and super skinny and not expecting to get the part, and I knew I wasn't going to get the part but I just wanted to go and just get my mind off it. And we were already planning on moving back [to Winnipeg from the United States]"

This summer she joined the ensemble for Rainbow Stage's production of Mamma Mia, which received rave reviews. 

Cancer makes learning her role more difficult, Wreford said, but it's not stopping her from performing.

"My brain doesn't remember things so well," she said. "So what I need to do now, when I learn choreography, I have to record it and take it home and do it over and over and over and over again. And the songs I have to sing over and over and over again.

"I love what I do and I feel so passionate about it. When I go to the theatre, I forget everything. I remember how much I love doing this. And I'm just as happy performing at Rainbow Stage as I am performing on Broadway. It's just a feeling you get.

"And you're around these people that you don't have to explain yourself to. You don't have to tell them anything about you except to do your job, which is being on stage and entertain people."

Since her diagnosis, Wreford said, she has advocated for a more open dialogue about brain cancer and what its sufferers go  through. She has also been involved in fundraising to help the cause. 

"Sometimes [brain cancer] is invisible. When you see me on stage, you don't see that I have this horrible thing that's killing me while I'm living. But it's also so important to raise awareness for it and talk about it and not be afraid to say that this is what I have, but this is what I'm doing with my life in the meantime," she said. 

"It made me able to wake up and be thankful for everything. I talked to some people in the cast about it too and we are doing what we love. We need to be grateful for that."