One of the best-known figures on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for the last 30 years has revealed that she has been secretly battling cancer while programming one of its biggest venues.
Karen Koren, Gilded Balloon’s founder, was told she had breast cancer the day after last year’s Fringe ended.
She has undergone surgery twice and completed separate courses of chemotherapy and radiotherapy before this year’s festival after it was discovered cancer had spread to her lymph nodes.
However, she continued to run her Leith-based company with her daughter Katy and went into work while she was being treated. She was recently told the cancer has gone into remission and is taking part in a trial of a new cancer drug.
Karen has been one of the most influential Fringe promoters since 1985, working with Craig Ferguson, Jerry Sadowitz and Alan Cumming when they were unknown, and going on to help launch the careers of Peter Kay, Bill Bailey, Dylan Moran, Johnny Vegas, and Tim Minchin. Last year Gilded Balloon expanded from its Teviot Row House into a brand new venue on Rose Street.
Recalling the events which unfolded after the Fringe, Karen said: “I had my usual three-year mammogram last July. I got a letter during the Fringe asking me to come back, but I just thought the machine wasn’t working properly. I wasn’t worried at all. My appointment was the day after the Fringe finished.
“When I was getting an ultrasound scan the radiologist said to me: ‘It looks like you’ve got a wee bit of cancer here.’ I just thought ‘What?’ I was totally taken aback. I was asked to stay for a biopsy and the diagnosis was confirmed a week later.
“I had a lumpectomy and when I went back for the results I was told that some of my lymph nodes were infected and would have to go back for a bigger operation as they weren’t happy with everything.
“When I got those results back I was told more cancer had been found and it was then that I was told to consider chemotherapy. I know some women just say ‘no’. But my family were around me and saying ‘You have to do everything you can.’ It was a hard decision. It’s the point when you realise you’re going to give up a year of your life. You realise it is serious. You are told all about life-expectancy and your chances. You know it is a gamble. My family are so important to me. I knew I had to go ahead with it.”
Karen, who turned 68 in January, kept her health problems quiet from all but her family, staff and a few close friends while her treatment was ongoing. But she decided to speak about her experiences for the first time to help promote Stand Up To Cancer, a fundraising campaign by Cancer Research UK and Channel 4 to help raise funds for new research.
She and Katy, 30, who became joint artistic director of Gilded Balloon before this year’s Fringe, have recorded a new podcast discussing how cancer has impacted on their lives. They staged an all-day “Pink Wednesday” promotion at the this month to raising funds for another charity, Breast Cancer UK. Last week they also helped stand-up Joel Dommett gatecrash 100 different Fringe shows in 24 hours in aid of Cancer Research UK.
Karen said: “I don’t feel 68. I’ve always had a lot of energy. The worst part of this is not having the energy I used to have. But I kept working throughout the treatment. Everybody copes with it in different ways. I just couldn’t have sat at home.”
A gradual handover of Gilded Balloon from Karen to Katy has been underway since 2015. Katy, who became joint artistic director of Gilded Balloon before this year’s Fringe, said: “This really pushed her to let go more and pushed me to take on more. But that’s not to say she has ever stopped over the last year. She would go for chemo on a Friday and be back at work on the Monday. She has been an absolute warrior.”
Karen said one of the most difficult things to come to terms with was the prospect of losing her hair – but insisted on wearing a “cold cap” during chemotherapy to reduce the chances.
She said: “lt was a like having an ice rink around your head. I was determined I wasn’t going to lose my hair. That was all there was to it. It’s the one thing that has kept me feeling young-ish over the years.
“I didn’t really want to talk about cancer when I was going through the treatment. When you are told you have cancer you know you may die. It’s a thing that you go through alone, no matter how much support you get. I have to say I was more scared of death before I had cancer than I am now.
“Even 20 years ago cancer was seen a death sentence – now it’s not. Things have come an awful long way in that time.”