'I became a stand-up comic after surviving cancer'

St John's Wood art historian turned to comedy when she lost her job during Covid

St John's Wood art historian took up comedy in her 60s when she lost her job during Covid and this month plays Camden Comedy Club and the Hen&Chickens - Credit: Supplied

After twice surviving cancer and reaching retirement age, Helen Prior could be forgiven for having a rest.

But instead the St John's Wood resident has put herself in the firing line as a stand up comic - bringing her show to the Camden Comedy Club and Hen & Chickens this month.

The 65-year-old art historian is on a mission to show there's life, hope, and laughter after a grim diagnosis - and to inspire others to go from victim to survivor.

Helen Prior is appearing at the Camden Comedy Club and Hen & Chickens

Helen Prior is appearing at the Camden Comedy Club and Hen & Chickens - Credit: Courtesy of Helen Prior

“Comedy has become a great substitute for everything a woman my age is missing from life – attention, love and a new career," she said. "I enjoy seeing people happy. I want to inspire people and show them that even at my age, even after a horrible disease you can find magic in your life. But my message is - do not wait for it, do it yourself!"

Prior's journey began in 2015 when she was diagnosed with two types of skin cancer on her nose and cheek, which involved extensive, painful reconstructive surgery.

“The psychological impact was absolutely horrendous. I looked like something out of a horror movie and felt like I was the ugliest woman in the world. I did not want to live."

It was only the thought of her son that stopped her from considering taking her own life.

Most Read

"I bought huge sunglasses to cover my face and tried to live a 'normal life,'" she says.

But shortly afterwards she was diagnosed with endometrial cancer which involved further major surgery.

“I had to go under the knife once again but I kept it from everyone. I thought, if people find out I will be shelved. It wasn’t just the physical pain but also the emotional recovery that took a long time. I was estranged from normal life. To be honest, life was never the same again”.

After a long recovery, she returned to work but never told anyone that she had survived cancer. Then, after losing her job during Covid, she took up comedy and is telling the world about her experience in a show which celebrates her bucket list of adventures including learning how to fly a plane, reaching the north pole on an ice breaker, and becoming a world champion Ballroom dancer.

Much of the material was originally gathered for a book which comes out in the autumn. 

"I had written a book but my husband sent me a letter from his solicitors saying he would divorce me if it was published, so I’ve had to shelve it for the time being for the sake of the family. When I lost my job I decided I could use some of the book for stage performances, because it's so funny, it had to be comedy. My fist gig was just five minutes but felt like an hour. Generally people want to see young and beautiful people on stage and I think this presumption is still there. But I am not afraid of it anymore. I have my wisdom, life experience to offer that none of the youngsters can."

Since starting her new career Prior, who is of Ukrainian heritage, has performed in numerous comedy clubs including Up the Greek, All About Eve, Boogaloo, Jokers, We are Funny Project and Soho Theatre.

She even won a cup at the Comedy Virgins competition for an act that uses a gallery of art masterpieces to talk about her life.

"As an art historian I never could restrain myself from projecting art on my life and over the years it astonished me how some paintings depicted situations, sometimes from centuries ago, that are similar to mine. So I bring it all into the show. Art can make you judge your own life better. It really helps!"

Helen Prior's Adventures of an old c*** or Living My Dream is out this autumn. She appears at Camden Comedy Club on August 6 and 7 and at the Hen&Chickens, Islington Aug 12-14.  https://hilariousbird.co.uk/