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"SNL" Alum Vanessa Bayer Says This Was Her First Cancer Symptom

Her cancer diagnosis inspired her to go into comedy.

During her seven seasons on Saturday Night Live (SNL), Vanessa Bayer became known for her hilarious sketch comedy roles as child actress Laura Parsons, weather forecaster Dawn Lazarus, and of course, the real life pop star, Miley Cyrus. But what many don't realize about Bayer is that her love of comedy began during a particularly dark time in her life. At the age of 15, she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a form of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow. Now, she's speaking up about surviving leukemia, sharing the first symptoms that tipped her off to a problem, and opening up about how her diagnosis shaped her life and career. Read on to learn which symptom was the first sign that the SNL star had cancer, and to hear how it still affects her life today, 25 years after her diagnosis.

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These were Bayer's first cancer symptoms.

Vanessa Bayer SNL star
Noam Galai/Getty Images for Gilda's Club

Bayer says that it was over spring break during her ninth grade year that she first started having "flu-like symptoms and a swollen eye." However, it took some time for doctors to determine that the underlying cause was leukemia. "First we thought it was an infection, and then we couldn't figure it out," she told Page Six in 2016. "Finally I was diagnosed with leukemia."

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), people with this particular form of cancer may also experience fatigue, weakness, dizziness, shortness of breath, pale skin, recurring infections, bruises with no known cause, or increasing bleeding (for instance, nosebleeds, bleeding gums, or heavier menstrual periods). Patients also tend to experience fever, night sweats, weight loss, or loss of appetite. ACS notes that symptoms are often overlooked because they are considered "general," and most often caused by something other than leukemia.

Once she was diagnosed, the actor spent the next several years undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and finally went into remission the summer before her senior year of high school. Since then, her cancer has thankfully never recurred—but she hasn't forgotten the experience.

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She says having cancer inspired her love of comedy.

Vanessa Bayer SNL Emmy Party
C Flanigan/Getty Images

For Bayer and her family, it turned out that laughter truly was the best medicine. "It's so therapeutic to laugh," the comedian told Coping Magazine in 2019. "And, besides, anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in a hospital knows there's a lot to laugh at," she said. "I think having cancer has definitely shaped my comedy because I found so many ways and reasons to laugh while I was sick, and it really gave me a stronger comedic point of view."

Bayer recalled while speaking with Page Six that she "wasn't really that scared" throughout her treatment. "My dad is a really funny guy, and we would make jokes about leukemia. When my friends would come over we would joke about it too. It's sort of messed-up out of context, but it put everybody at ease. Being sick is the reason I went into comedy," she said.

The experience also shaped her as a person, she says.

Vanessa Bayer SNL Star Sirius XM
Taylor Hill/Getty Images

Besides impacting her choice of career, Bayer says that having cancer also shaped her as a person—perhaps more so because she was a teen at the time of her diagnosis. "I definitely think it has given me some pretty good perspective on life, especially in bigger life moments,"she told Coping. "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."

In 2019, Bayer published her first children's book, called How Do You Care For a Very Sick Bear? She hoped that it would help teach children how to empathize with others who are ill.

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She's now an advocate for several health organizations.

Vanessa Bayer SNL Star Make-A-Wish event
Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Make-A-Wish Foundation of Metro New York and Western New York

During her course of treatment, Bayer was granted a wish through the Make-A-Wish Foundation: a family trip to Hawaii. When she became famous as a comedian on SNL, she made sure to maintain her connection with the organization, often leading tours for Wish Kids who had requested to visit the show's set.

"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," she told Coping. "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."

Besides collaborating with Make-A-Wish, Bayer is also a spokesperson for the Gift of Life Marrow Registry, a public registry of bone marrow and blood stem cell donors. Had her own cancer come back, she likely would have needed such a life saving intervention herself. "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," Bayer said. Thanks to her advocacy, the organization will touch even more lives.

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Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more