Science of Success

Vanessa Bayer was diagnosed with leukemia when she was 15—here's how she turned her survival into success

How Vanessa Bayer turned a cancer diagnosis into a starring role on SNL
How Vanessa Bayer turned a cancer diagnosis into a starring role on SNL

Over her seven seasons on "Saturday Night Live," Vanessa Bayer became a favorite for creating characters like Jacob, the smiley bar mitzvah boy, Laura Parsons, the smiley kid reporter, and Dawn Lazarus, the nervous — but still smiley — weekend meteorologist. She was also known for impressions, like Jennifer Aniston's character, Rachel, from "Friends," and Miley Cyrus.

Her work on the show earned Bayer an Emmy nomination and has since lead to roles in movies like "Trainwreck" and "Ibiza."

In November, Showtime announced that Bayer would star in a comedy she co-created about a woman who overcomes childhood leukemia in order to achieve her lifelong goal of becoming a home shopping network star. The show, titled "Big Deal," is reportedly inspired by Bayer's own experience with beating cancer as a freshman at Orange High School in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio.

"When I was 15, I was diagnosed with leukemia," Bayer tells CNBC Make It. "It was obviously a very difficult part of my life and, you know, I had a lot of support from friends and family."

Vanessa Bayer as Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy, Seth Meyers, Cecily Strong during 'Weekend Update' on 'Saturday Night Live.' 
Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

"I used humor a lot to get through," she says. "It was something that I think made me sort of go into comedy because, you know, my friends and I could laugh about it all so much and so I think it really helped me get through that time."

It's something that Bayer shares with many other successful comedians. People like Sarah Silverman and Ellen DeGeneres represent the kind of "survivor comedian" that has become mainstream today.

"A lot of times it helps to laugh to get through things, and so I think that that's why a lot of comics have been through some pretty serious stuff because, you know, if you laugh at it, it makes it sort of a little bit easier to get through," she explains.

Michael Che and Vanessa Bayer as Laura Parsons during Weekend Update on March 4, 2017
Will Heath/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

This perspective was also helpful for Bayer while navigating high school and college. She wrote about beating cancer in her college application essay. "I think that was maybe the one time that people were kind of jealous of me, because it is a great topic, you know? People try to kind of like you know have dramatic things to write about, and I did fully take advantage of that," she says. (Her 4.2 G.P.A. probably helped.)

After high school, Bayer attended the University of Pennsylvania, where she planned to study biology. "I thought that I would be a biology major because I was very into biology, but then I realized, my career goal would be to be like a medical researcher who like have her own show on TV."

Instead, Bayer set her sights on comedy. She became involved in a student sketch group called "Bloomers" and was an intern on Late Night With Conan O'Brien.

"I definitely think surviving something like leukemia, I really felt like I wanted to do something great with my life because I was lucky enough to survive it," says Bayer. "That motivated me in a lot of ways."

Vanessa Bayer as Dawn Lazarus Weekend Meteorologist during 'Weekend Update' in Studio 8H on May 20, 2017
Will Heath/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

After college, Bayer moved to Chicago, where she worked 9-to-5 for a production company and an ad agency. On nights and weekends Bayer would perform improv comedy at the renowned iO Theater and Second City. After her first major comedy gig, performing on a cruise ship for Second City, Bayer took a leap of faith and became a comedian full-time.

"It was scary, probably for my parents the most," she says. "But they were very supportive. My parents did a very good job of hiding from me that they were kind of nervous … Until I got on SNL, no one had any idea what I was doing, and I think that's how it is for a lot of people."

Bayer joined the cast of "Saturday Night Live" as a featured player 2010. "My 10 year high school reunion was the Thanksgiving of my first season on 'SNL,'" she recalls. "It couldn't have been timed better. The only thing was like everyone in high school was really supportive and nice to me and I really loved my high school experience, so it would have been better I guess like if everyone had been so mean and I could have come back and been like 'I'm on 'SNL' now, ha ha!'"

Alex Moffat, Vanessa Bayer, Beck Bennett in Studio 8H on May 20, 2017 
Will Heath/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

During her years on the show Bayer bonded with performers like Fred Armisen, Taran Killam and Kirsten Wiig and always met with children visiting the "SNL" set through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

"Whenever Make-A-Wish kids would visit, I would talk with them and, you know, tell them I was once a Wish Kid," she remembers. "That was very always very full-circle and very special for me." When Bayer had the chance to make a wish, she chose to go to Hawaii with her family. "It was the first time I got to ride in a limo," she remembers.

Bayer is also active with Gift of Life Marrow Registry, a public bone marrow and blood stem cell registry founded in 1991 to increase the diversity of donors and improve cancer survival rates for under-represented patients. Today, the likelihood of a cancer patient finding a match on a public bone marrow registry is highly dependent on the patient's ethnic background. "I was very lucky because once I was treated, I didn't relapse," says Bayer. "If I had relapsed, I most likely would have needed a bone marrow transplant."

She continues, "That's part of the reason this is so near and dear to my heart. Also my uncle has CLL, which is an adult form of leukemia, and my dad gave him a bone marrow transplant a few years ago. So it's something that's really impacted my life and that is really important to me."

Currently, a person is diagnosed with blood cancer every three minutes in the U.S. Representatives like Bayer are advocating for people to order a free swab kit to register to be a donor.

Looking back on her life since being her diagnosis teenager, Bayer says she wishes she could tell her younger self to relax. "I really do think in a lot of ways, laughter is—" she says, before cutting herself off. "I don't know if it's the best medicine, because, like, medicine medicine is probably like, maybe a little stronger."

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