White Coat, Black Art·WHITE COAT BLACK ART

"It may be a very different life, but it's a life worth living."

As Canadians mourn the loss of Tragically Hip singer Gord Downie, Dr. Brian Goldman has the inspiring story of a Winnipeg woman, Catherine Wreford-Ledlow, who is facing a similar diagnosis, with the same courage and intention to do good in the world, before she leaves it.
Catherine, Joel, Elliot and Quinn. (family photo)
Listen26:29
By Brian Goldman

On Wednesday morning, Canada woke up to the sad news that the iconic singer and songwriter Gord Downie had died of glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), that most awful of brain cancers.  

As an ER physician, I have seen it a small number times in my career. Thankfully, the diagnosis is rare. That is no comfort to the patients and their families who feel the discovery and diagnosis like a sucker punch to their solar plexus. 

That is precisely how I feel after each new soul in whom I find that horrible beast. Perhaps it's the grave prognosis – even the best of chemotherapy and radiation afford only 18 months of life. Perhaps it's knowing that the cancer's tentacles stretch far, wide and deep into the mind – implacable and irremovable.

I have always thought that GBM was slang for hopeless.

Until I met Catherine Wreford-Ledlow.  

Catherine Wreford-Ledlow with Quinn, 4 and Elliot, 7.

She's the focus of our program this week. You may know her as one of the finest Broadway dancers to come from Winnipeg  –  Canada's crucible of ballet. Catherine trained at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and did summer school at the National Ballet of Canada.  

She was destined for the bright lights of Broadway, where she played the role of Phyllis in 42nd Street, and was in Trevor Nunn's acclaimed revival of Oklahoma!

Around 13 years ago, she decided she'd had enough of the business. She settled in Los Angeles and became a successful mortgage broker. She met her soul mate – Joel Ledlow – a young martial arts instructor. They got hitched, and, in a case of life imitating art, moved to Oklahoma City, where Catherine went to nursing school, and Joel opened his first martial arts dojo.

They started a family.
Image of Catherine's brain tumour. (Courtesy of Cahterine Wreford-Ledlow )

After their son Elliot (now seven) was born, Catherine started having headaches, which were chalked up as migraines or  a new mother's lack of sleep. The headaches settled down. But after their daughter Quinn was born in 2013, the headaches returned, worse than ever. They were so severe that Catherine was ordered by Joel and a concerned friend to go to the ER. She did, with 5-week-old Quinn in tow.

A CT scan of Catherine's brain told it all: She had a tumour the size of an orange.  

Cahterine Wreford-Ledlow in costume (courtesy of family)

"It took up a quarter of my brain," she told me when I visited her in Winnipeg in August. 

Brain tumours are like the evil mischief maker who approaches the carefully prepared table for 12 – all those perfect pieces of china, crystal goblets and flatware in place – and upends it all.

Because the cancer was perilously close to her speech centre, Catherine had to have awake surgery, so the neurosurgeon performing the craniotomy would know if he was damaging his patient's ability to speak.  

Catherine was flabbergasted by the diagnosis. And yet, when the neurosurgeon told her she'd have to be awake during surgery, the nurse in her had a one-word reaction: "Cool!"

The brain tumour turned out to be an anaplastic astrocytoma. As is, the cancer is not as malignant as the GBM that took Gord Downie, but it's bad enough. With standard treatment, the median survival for adults with an anaplastic astrocytoma is approximately two-to-three years. The punch in the gut is that anaplastic astrocytoma has a strong tendency to progress to GBM. The pace of progression is variable, but studies suggest a mean time interval of approximately two years for progression.

Catherine was diagnosed in 2013. It's 2017, and so far, she shows no signs of GBM.

She graduated from nursing, but the diagnosis made her rethink her career plans. She worried that the quick mind that once did mortgage calculations in her head would not be able to calculate drug dosages or the drip rate on an intravenous pump. That's nursing's loss. She would have made a wonderful and empathic colleague.

In 2014 she returned to Winnipeg, where her parents and her sister live, giving Catherine a much-needed support network.  

Catherine and partner practice a dance lift in rehearsals for Mama Mia on Winnipeg's Rainbow Stage. (courtesy of Catherine Wreford-Ledlow )

Back in Winnipeg, she has returned to her first love: dancing. She was in Les Misérables, and then in the city's Rainbow Stage production of Mamma Mia, where I got to see her.  I'm no dance critic, but her effortless steps left the rest of her ensemble in awe.

That's not the only thing that awes me. The other is the open and honest way she talks about her illness. Backstage, she introduced me to stage hands as "Dr. Goldman from White Coat, Black Art who is following me around as I talk about my brain tumour."  

It's not for show. When Catherine went to wardrobe and makeup, the stage hands talked about Catherine's illness in exactly the same matter-of-fact way.  Like it was no big deal to her, or them.

It was the same when she introduced me at the Shelley Shearer School of Dance, where she teaches aspiring young dancers.

Her mother – our former CBC colleague Diane Wreford – told me she is proud of the openness with which her daughter is dealing with what life has handed her. Her husband Joel says the moment he met Catherine, he began a journey to becoming his better self – "the person I was meant to be," he told me.

She has that effect on a lot of people.

Catherine helps Quinn, 4 ride her bike. (courtesy Wreford-Ledlow family )

Catherine is not  just a show dancer and a dance teacher. Add in partner to Joel and mother to Quinn and Elliot, fundraiser for brain cancer research, support group leader and peer support for patients with the disease.

I get exhausted just thinking about all the things she does.   

I'm usually good at sizing people up while I'm in the midst of interviewing. But something about Catherine is different.  

It was only after I was on my way home that I realized the elemental thing that makes her so unique. There's a lot of talk in the media about people battling cancer. Catherine called herself a warrior. But neither descriptor fits Catherine completely. Battlers sometimes lose.  And warriors get tired.

Catherine's gift is her wondrously brash and unashamed way of proclaiming, "This is who I am."  "This is what I've got."  "I deal with it every day."  "So can you."

In my mind, Catherine isn't  going to die of cancer.  One day, she may die with cancer.  But for now, and (I hope) for a long, long time, she's living with cancer.  

And that fills me with hope.

Catherine, Joel, Quinn and Elliot.

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