By CATHRIN SCHAER



Car crashes, stalkers, murderers, teenage pregnancies, drugs and disease — whatever will the writers of Shortland Street come up with next? And what can they possibly do to open the new season of our favourite soap?



Well, apart from the usual melodramatics, we will also see the lovable, slightly dizzy cafe worker Waverley Wilson deal with a breast cancer scare.



This may seem mild compared to past histrionics, but it means a lot to actress Claire Chitham, who plays Waverley.

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"Waverley has never really had a lot of weighty issues to deal with," says the 24-year-old Aucklander who has been Waverley since she was 16, apart from a two year break. "And I've never really asked for them. It was the Shortland Street writers' choice to give her this issue to deal with.



"So this is exciting for me. It allows me to explore new ways of Waverley's thinking. But it's something I also want to be really careful about as it's such a responsibility."



Chitham has had to deal with cancer in her family. It wasn't breast cancer and the illness didn't affect anyone close to her, but the issue is something she cares deeply about.



"No matter how much the word cancer is bandied around, you never lose sight of the fact that it means illness, death and loss," Chitham says. "And it's one of the most common causes of death for New Zealand women, which is something we need to be made aware of. I don't think something like this can be talked about enough."



Chitham cried when she first read the scripts, she says.



She didn't research the issue any further or even think about it too much. "I totally believe that for a reaction to be real [on screen] it has to be immediate and on the spot."



In the script, Waverley doesn't know much about breast cancer when she gets her test results back showing abnormal cells, so Chitham didn't want to know too much either. That's her more impulsive style of acting,


she says.



Which leads to an obvious question: are Chitham and her character one and the same? Do they share personality traits?



"You and your character grow up with the show and I think maybe I've grown up a bit quicker. I've never really been a pash-and-dash teenager," she jokes.



"I also always feel lucky that my character left the show for two years when I was 17. So when I came back I had more of my own life."



Chitham says if she had a cancer scare she wouldn't keep it a secret from her family and friends like her character does — she'd tell them straight away.



And Waverley starts thinking about her funeral. She wants them to play Wind Beneath My Wings. "Ooh, that's pretty bad," Chitham groans.



"Then again," she laughs, "sometimes I'll be clearing up and I'll find myself getting really picky over something.



"I'm not naturally pedantic and I wonder if it wasn't for Waverley maybe I wouldn't be responding in this way. So I'm not sure how she has influenced my life. I guess I won't know until I leave her behind."



Although she has had her moments — "I mean, everybody gets sick of a job sometimes after they've been doing it for five or six years" — Chitham won't leave Waverley behind soon.



"I never get sick of Waverley and her story," she says. "It's not like a film or a play, where your character has a beginning, middle and end. On Shortland Street your character often does something you never thought they would."



She doesn't enjoy the lack of anonymity. "It makes me wonder how I would react to things if I wasn't constantly recognised and wasn't aware that lots of people know who I am. That does affect my life very much."



Especially now that she is going out with rambunctious, multi-media personality, Mikey Havoc, who is nothing like Nick at all.



Chitham is mildly defensive on the subject. "A lot of people were talking about it when the women's magazines first wrote about it. But I really don't care what people think. It's one of the most positive bits of my life." Subject closed.



While being one half of a groovy celebrity couple may be a little hard to deal with, on the whole, Chitham says cheerily she has absolutely no regrets about growing up in front of the nation.



"I could never regret it. I feel very lucky. Not only has it been an amazing, regular financial gain for five years but I've also been employed for five years as an actor."



And she was able to do things like spend her 21st birthday in Fiji, where Shortland Street is huge, which meant surreal, Princess Di-like adulation from the locals, with Chitham visiting orphanages and appearing on the front page of the local paper. And she was part of the Santa Parade.



"It's just the way that Shortland Street reaches out to certain people."



Chitham concludes with Waverley-like enthusiasm that "some of the best experiences in my life have totally been because of my role on the show".