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Actor living with MS takes stage in leading role after many years

| Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, 12:21 p.m.
Cory McCaffery Sigler walks through the dressing room after getting ready at the McKeesport Little Theater on opening night for a production of 'The Drowsy Chaperone' on Friday, Sept. 7, 2012. This is the first time the professional actor has been back on stage in a lead role since being diagnosed with multiple scleroris in 1998. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Cory McCaffery Sigler pulls his costume from the dressing-room rack at the McKeesport Little Theater on opening night for a production of 'The Drowsy Chaperone' on Friday, Sept. 7, 2012. This is the first time the professional actor has been back on the stage in a lead role since being diagnosed with multiple scleroris in 1998. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Actor Cory McCaffery Sigler hugs fellow cast member Elizabeth Pegg of Pittsburgh's South Side on Sept. 7, 2012, the opening night of 'The Drowsy Chaperone' at McKeesport Little Theater as fellow actor TJ Firneno, 23, at left, of Pittsburgh's Mt. Washington looks on. Actor Tim Dougherty of McKeesport is at right. Sigler had written thank-you notes to the three actors for their extra care and effort in helping him get ready for the production, which is the first time the professional actor has been back on the stage in a lead role since being diagnosed with multiple scleroris in 1998. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Professional actor Cory McCaffery Sigler buttons his costume while sitting backstage at the McKeesport Little Theater moments before his return to the stage on Friday, Sept. 7, 2012. The actor was excited about opening night for the 'The Drowsy Chaperone' because he was performing in his first lead role since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Fellow actor Tim Dougherty, 38, of McKeesport, at left, puts ice packs into a vest for Cory McCaffery Sigler at the McKeesport Little Theater on opening night for 'The Drowsy Chaperone' on Friday, Sept. 7, 2012. Sigler wears the vest to help him stay cool on stage and to soothe his muscles. The opening night was the professional actor's first return to the stage in a lead role since being diagnosed with multiple scleroris in 1998. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review

Cory McCaffery Sigler worried that his acting career was over when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis more than a decade ago.

But recently, the South Park man had his first lead role in a production since his 1998 diagnosis. And he performed without his wheelchair.

In the year before his performance, Sigler gradually taught himself to walk again, with the help of a new medication.

“I want them (people) to know that you have to hold on to your dreams ... I never stopped doing what I loved,” said Sigler, 35.

“If I can do it (others can). I'm not Superman, by any means.”

Sigler had the role of the Man in the Chair in the Tony Award-winning musical, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” which played in September at the McKeesport Little Theater. The show portrays a man whose obsession with a fictional musical from the 1920s — “The Drowsy Chaperone” — leads him to encounter the characters from the show in his apartment while listening to a recording.

Before his diagnosis, Sigler had made a name for himself in acting circles. He performed with Latshaw Productions in Greensburg and Pittsburgh Musical Theater, as well as other companies.

Gradually, he went from being strong to losing mobility to the point he had to use a wheelchair.

Sigler, then in his mid-20s, noticed that he became fatigued easily and was tripping a lot.

“It just kept getting worse and worse and worse,” he said.

He was diagnosed with primary-progressive multiple sclerosis, which initially causes subtle symptoms. The disease affects the central nervous system and has no known cause or no cure.

About 350,000 people or more in the U.S. have the disease, according to the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America.

Over time, Sigler lost use of his right hand. He also had to use a wheelchair. But he remained in the theater by taking jobs he could do from his wheelchair, such as directing and behind-the-scenes work.

Sigler also started the company McCaffery Mysteries Inc. in 2001.

“Our mission is to provide a top-quality performance that focuses on team building and problem solving,” Sigler said.

McCaffery Mysteries Inc. produces comedic murder-mystery shows. Sigler hopes to see it grow.

Sigler's condition improved a little more than a year ago when he was began taking Ampyra, the brand name for the medication dalfampridine, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2010 to help with mobility in people with multiple sclerosis.

The chemical aminopyridine — from which the medication is derived — has been around since the 1990s but has been improved to be a safe aid for patients with MS, said Dr. Rock Heyman, the director of the Multiple Sclerosis Center for UPMC.

The drug allows messages to travel more efficiently through the passages in the brain that have been affected by MS, Heyman said.

About one-third of patients who take the medication experience positive results, with the major side effect being seizures for those prone to seizures or those with kidney problems, Heyman said.

Because the chemical has been around for so long, Heyman said, he does not expect any long- term side effects for patients so long as their health stays positive.

Six months after taking the drug and seeing no results, Sigler was ready to discontinue taking it.

Sigler remembers the day that changed his mind. He was cutting tomatoes for dinner when his wife pointed out to him that he was using his right hand — the side that had been affected by the MS.

“I just instinctively started cutting with (that hand),” Sigler said.

He kept building strength and continued to take the drug. Sigler began to walk again.

Dorothy Fallows, the director of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” worked with Sigler before he got sick and continues to do shows with him.

Sigler's success in acting is, in part, due to his persistence in making each show as perfect as he can, she said.

“He's so hard on himself,” Fallows said.

Fallows said that Sigler is “150 percent more mobile” and was able to accomplish all the things he needed to for the show.

Mandy Sigler, 31, Cory Sigler's wife, said taking the new medication has “made big changes in his life.”

Her and her husband were told that the drug was not a cure for multiple sclerosis and that in order to continue experiencing the benefits of walking, Sigler would have to continue taking it, Mandy Sigler said.

The couple met online when Cory Sigler was experiencing the worst of the MS symptoms. After two years of communicating online, they met in person. Today, they have a son, Paxton, 4, and a daughter, Meadow, who was born Oct. 21.

Sigler, who is directing a production of “Lend Me a Tenor” that will run at the McKeesport Little Theater in March, said he wants to talk to others about his story to encourage them.

“So many people fall into depression,” he said.

“It doesn't have to be that way.”

He said that those who have multiple sclerosis should try not to let it prevent them from enjoying their lives.

Heyman also offers encouragement to those who suffer from MS.

“There are lots of things people can do to get help, and also to help themselves,” he said

Sigler said his biggest problem with living out his dreams is figuring out “ how,” not “ if.”

“Life is just so good,” Sigler said. “I don't want to see others throw it away.”

Matt DeFusco is an intern with Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mdefusco@tribweb.com.

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