Alongside being a professional dancer and seasoned Broadway performer, Catherine Wreford is a devoted wife, mother and brain cancer survivor. Despite the physical, mental and emotional challenges of living with a life-threatening illness, Catherine has not changed her approach on how she chooses to live each day. She fearlessly faces the realities of living with terminal cancer head on and refuses to let them hold her back.
Catherine is wearing Activate Recycled Polyester Top in Pink Cloud and Strive High Waisted Recycled Polyester 7/8 Legging in Abstract Brush
Life on Stage
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Canada – from the time she was a little girl, Catherine always loved singing and dancing for her family, especially her mother and sister. As she grew up, that natural propensity for performance turned into an unrelenting passion. Taking lessons at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (RWB), she fondly remembers performing in productions of The Music Man and The Sound of Music, alongside her mother, who also had a love for the stage.
In between these performances, she was given the opportunity to travel to Los Angeles on a jazz scholarship. That experience solidified her belief that she had something special to share with the world. She knew that she wanted to bring joy, happiness, and the ability to momentarily escape to a larger audience. So, at age 18, she moved to Toronto after graduating high school. She had no agent, no job prospects and no place to live, just a dream to be on the big stage and pursue her passion for the performing arts.
She worked odd jobs to pay the bills and initially struggled for a few months until she landed her first professional role in the musical West Side Story at the Stratford Festival, a prestigious theatre festival in the city of Stratford, Ontario – brought alive by some of the world’s finest performers.
She was originally turned away during the open call auditions for the musical. However, showcasing her determination and drive to make it in the industry, Catherine wouldn’t take no for an answer. She went to a party where fellow dancers were discussing the final auditions coming up the next day, mentioning that “Sergio” would be there. By the way they said his name, Catherine knew he was clearly a very important person in the casting process. Armed with this new information, she cut her hair short and dyed it black that night, then showed up at the audition the next day with a new unrecognizable look. When asked who she was and why she was there, she confidently said that Sergio had told her to come to the audition. She was hired for the musical that day and soon signed with an agent to represent her. What Catherine claims she may have lacked in technical excellence, she more than made up for with her courageous attitude and fearless spirit.
“If you can’t tell, I’m a little bit competitive. I may not be the world’s best performer, but I know how to make people notice me.”
Her first big break came next when she was cast to tour with the musical Annie Get Your Gun. From that came her lead role in 42nd Street on Broadway followed by Oklahoma on Broadway. She then toured with 42nd Street where she performed in every major city across the United States. Other career highlights include performing at the Tony Awards, twice.
With humble beginnings, Catherine managed to make it in the notoriously grueling industry of showbiz and live performance. She saw her name on countless playbills as she snagged more and more roles and carved out an illustrious career as a Broadway performer. But that exhausting lifestyle began to take its toll and eventually, Catherine decided that she needed to take a break away from the spotlight of the stage.
Life Changing News
During this hiatus from performing, Catherine became a wife, mother and even ran a mortgage company before deciding to enter nursing school. Settling down in Oklahoma, Catherine’s life was different than her life on stage but still nonstop. She juggled working full time, being a straight A student and president of the nurses association at school, alongside being a busy mom.
The spring of 2013 would prove to be a pivotal time in Catherine’s life. She had just welcomed her second child and graduated nursing school when her best friend, Craig, came to visit from out of town. She remembers exercising with him when she first started to feel abnormally dizzy and headachy. She also started to have trouble remembering the names of everyday objects and found herself having to point to the things she was trying to reference because she struggled to recall the right word. She initially dismissed these systems as simply having “baby brain” and lack of sleep, juggling a newborn and 2-and-a-half-year-old. But when the symptoms persisted, she decided it was best to go to the hospital to get checked out.
When all the routine tests came back normal, they decided to send her for a CT scan, just to be sure. Catherine immediately knew that something was wrong when a team of white-faced nurses, doctors and neurosurgeons came to deliver the results. At the young age of 32, her life was about to change forever. The images showed a tumor on her brain, the size of a grapefruit. Understandably, she went into total shock.
“I just remember lying there and crying being like what the f**k is happening? What do I do now?”
The doctors advised that the tumor needed to be removed immediately as her brain could start hemorrhaging at any moment. Emergency surgery removed as much of the mass as possible, about 80%, and it was determined that she had Anaplastic Astrocytoma, a malignant brain tumor. Catherine was told she could expect to live for only another two to six years. This type of cancer will eventually turn into Glioblastoma – the same cruel and uncurable form of brain cancer that both John McCain and Gord Downie (legendary front man of the rock band The Tragically Hip) lost their battles with. Once it reaches this stage, you have very little time left.
Image from one of Catherine's MRI scans when her tumour was first detected
Calling this revelation life-shattering would be an understatement to most. But, although her diagnosis was devastating, Catherine was determined that it would never define her.
Her next step was aggressive chemotherapy. She hadn’t sang or danced professionally in nine years and was planning on starting a career in nursing but when she was forced to start treatment instead, her passion for performing was reignited and she realized that she had to pursue it once more.
“The reason I gave it up is because I figured I can only do this for so long and then I’ll have to find a real job. And then during that time when I was in treatment, I was like you know what, I love to dance and to be on stage and I don’t want to give that up. I don’t want my tumor to take that away from me.”
Her daughter was just 4-months old when Catherine started chemo and it broke her heart that she was not able to breastfeed because of this. When women from her community heard what she was going through, they started reaching out and asking if they could donate their extra breast milk for her daughter. Catherine ended up having to buy a deep freeze to store all the donations that she received. It meant so much to her that people cared enough to do that, even people she barely even knew. That kindness gave her hope that the world was a good place and she started trying to shift her focus to a place of gratitude rather than looking at the negative.
Needing something to take her mind off treatment, Catherine spent the rest of that year slowing conditioning herself back into dancer’s strength. When she is dancing, Catherine is free. Free from cancer, stress, uncertainty and fear. So, once her chemo was completed, Catherine and her family decided to move back to Winnipeg, to be close to her family and to start her second act on the stage.
Catherine is wearing Bounce Recycled Polyester Tank and Getaway High Waisted Recycled Polyester 7/8 Legging, both in Purple Charcoal.
Living Life Fearlessly
Putting roots back down in her hometown, Catherine started auditioning again and her husband opened a martial arts school. Earning the role of dance captain in the production of Les Miz, she proved to herself that she still had what it takes to own the stage. Another hometown highlight was playing Cassie, the lead role in A Chorus Line with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in 2018.
Since her return home, there’s no doubt that she’s been embraced by the dance and theatre community, performing in a variety of local productions including Mama Mia, Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella. Catherine was set to perform in The Wizard of Oz this summer, followed by a 2-week Broadways gala performance and reunion with her former dance friends in Sonoma. However, those performances have been cancelled now in reaction to the current Covid-19 pandemic.
“I’m just really enjoying my life and I know that it could be done at any second. I know anyone’s life could be done at any second, but I feel a much bigger push towards living in the moment and doing what I love every second.”
Catherine was also recently in the musical Fun Home, where she was able to perform alongside her son, at just 9 years old. Following in her footsteps, both of her children have taken to the stage and are continuing the tradition of performing alongside family, just like Catherine and her mother did years ago.
On top of everything, Catherine also teaches musical theatre classes and does choreography, sings in her church choir and volunteers with the Brain Tumor Foundation of Canada as a group meeting facilitator. Sharing her story is an important part of her process and helps others who are struggling with their own cancer diagnosis. Constantly on the go, she gains strength through engaging with her community and defies the stereotype of what it means to be “sick”. She pushes forward by trying to take it one day at a time, and some days, she takes it an hour at a time.
“I am way happier now than I would have been had I not been diagnosed with cancer. The plan was to work hard now and then enjoy ourselves later but then when you’re told that there probably won’t be a later, you realize that you have to enjoy every minute of life now. I want to leave this world at my highest time.”
Catherine has an MRI every 3-months to monitor if her tumor is growing, a sign that it is morphing into Glioblastoma. When first diagnosed, she was given two to six years and this June will mark her seventh year as a survivor. She jokingly says that she has already passed her expiration date. When asked, what legacy she hopes to create for her children and loved ones, Catherine replied:
“Just enjoy life, live, be kind and be accepting. Try to be understanding and be helpful. Be open about how you’re feeling and if you’re struggling with anything, ask for help. It’s ok to ask for help, which took me a while to learn going through all of this.”
Creating a deep and meaningful network of community and connection, Catherine wasn’t chosen as our “Fearless Female” because she’s never afraid, doubtful or insecure. She still deals with fear and uncertainty of course, but she doesn’t let that stop her from living her life to the fullest each day as she continues to realize her dreams. A definition of strength and fearlessness that we can all take inspiration from.
Catherine is wearing Exhilarate Recycled Polyester Medium Support Bra & Infinity High Waisted Recycled Polyester 7/8 Legging, both in Dusty Rose.
Catherine is wearing Drizzle Reversible Anorak Jacket in Matte Black/Black.