Talks Facing Leukemia with Laughter
by Kaylene Isherwood
Known for her megawatt smile, Vanessa Bayer is a Saturday Night Live alum whose seven-season career with the iconic late-night show was highlighted by Friends character Rachel Green impressions and Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy sketches. During her tenure from 2010 to 2017, Vanessa was the longest-serving current female cast member, having appeared in 149 episodes, and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.
Before making it on SNL, Vanessa interned at Late Night with Conan O’Brien. And like many iconic SNL stars who got their start with The Second City, an improvisational comedy enterprise, Vanessa was no different. She trained at The Annoyance Theater, iO Chicago, and the Second City Training Center, performing with the touring ensemble and at the theatre in Chicago.
Vanessa’s resumé doesn’t end there. She’s an Emmy-nominated actress and has starred in the movies Trainwreck, Office Christmas Party, and Ibiza. On top of that, she co-created the Web series Sound Advice alongside her brother Jonah.
The diagnosis that shaped her comedy
One experience that helped lead Vanessa to a career in comedy was overcoming leukemia. The diagnosis came during spring break of her freshman year of high school. While her peers were enjoying the typical high school experience, Vanessa, at 15 years old, was fighting acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow.
“I really had so much support from friends,” Vanessa shares in a recent interview with Coping magazine. “They made me feel included and a part of things even when I couldn’t be. And something that made all of that easier was that we would laugh and make jokes about me being sick. I think that helped us get through it so much, and it’s ultimately why I went into comedy because it’s so uplifting and so healing in many ways.”
After being diagnosed, Vanessa underwent 10 months of chemotherapy and 10 days of radiation, followed by two years of maintenance chemotherapy. Once she completed her treatment regimen, she celebrated with an end-of-chemo party the summer before her senior year of high school.
It’s so therapeutic to laugh … Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in a hospital knows there’s a lot to laugh at.
Vanessa seems to remember it like it was yesterday, stating, “I wore a very cute blue knit halter top. It was quite chic.” A huge celebration involving her family and friends, the party included a big sheet cake, and her brother’s band performed in the backyard, which led to the police crashing the bash.
From having her wish granted to granting others’
When she was going through treatment as a teenager, Vanessa was granted a wish from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Her wish was for a memorable trip to Hawaii with her family. Over a decade later, she ended up leading tours for Wish kids visiting the set of SNL.
“It felt like such a full-circle experience when a Wish Kid would come visit SNL. I always loved meeting them and would make a point to tell them that I was also a Wish kid myself,” Vanessa says. “One of the things that’s so great about this organization is that when you’re a child being granted a wish, it changes your perspective and reminds you how many great opportunities, people, and places there are out there.”
Laughter – the best form of medicine
Throughout her cancer journey, Vanessa said her parents, brother, and friends made up her support team, and they all spent a lot of time laughing together. She believes laughter is the best form of medicine. “It’s so therapeutic to laugh,” the SNL alum states. “And, besides, anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in a hospital knows there’s a lot to laugh at.”
As laughter and comedy are such an important part of Vanessa’s life, she believes cancer has had a significant impact on her career in comedy. “I think having cancer has definitely shaped my comedy because I found so many ways and reasons to laugh while I was sick,” she shares. “And it really gave me a stronger comedic point of view.”
What advice would you give to our readers who are facing cancer?
If you’re lucky enough to have people supporting you, embrace those people and laugh with (or without) them. And be kind to yourself. You can use cancer as an excuse to get out of anything you don’t want to do – a boring dinner, a taxing work event. And you should! You deserve it. I stand by that.
A look ahead
Vanessa’s leukemia thankfully never recurred. If it had, she would have likely needed a bone marrow transplant. However, even though she hasn’t needed a bone marrow transplant herself, she wants to help people who do. Vanessa is a spokesperson for the Gift of Life Marrow Registry, a public bone marrow and blood stem cell registry that increases the diversity of donors and improves cancer survival rates, especially for under-represented cancer survivor populations.
“They have saved so many lives and expanded the likelihood that people of so many different backgrounds and ethnicities will find a donor match in such an impressive, real, and inspiring way,” Vanessa says.
It really gave me a stronger comedic point of view.
Up next, the actress is set to star in Big Deal, a television series that was co-created by Vanessa and is in development at Showtime, about a woman who overcomes childhood leukemia to reach her dream of being a home shopping network star. Her character is partly based on her own life as a leukemia survivor. Vanessa has also called on her experience as a cancer survivor to write her first children’s book, How Do You Care For A Very Sick Bear, which hits the shelves in June. She explains, “[The book] is about how you can be there for a friend who is sick or going through a difficult time. I think I can speak to that pretty well.”
Vanessa adds, “I definitely think [having cancer] has given me some pretty good perspective on life, especially in bigger life moments, but I think the biggest thing it’s done is given me empathy for other people dealing with illness or other trauma. We all have something going on.”
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2019.