Exclusive: Vanessa Bayer is Pro-Joking About Childhood Cancer

For all its little joys, being a kid can be scary business. The world is big and unpredictable, and, sometimes, it’s completely unfair. But what are kids to do when life spirals out of their control and bad things happen to their loved ones? Those are the questions actress Vanessa Bayer tackles in her first children’s book, How Do You Care for a Very Sick Bear?, a  heartfelt story about sickness and the friendships that help make the hard times a bit more manageable.

It’s a story Bayer knows intimately. As a teenager, the Saturday Night Live alum had childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), an aggressive form of cancer that impacts blood and bone marrow, and the experience affected everything from her social life to her career trajectory. One of the most impactful takeaways for Bayer was how supportive her family and friends were in her time of need — this, ultimately, inspired her first children’s book.

“I was in the hospital in the pediatric unit with a lot of other kids, and I think it’s really important that kids and their friends know what to do when somebody gets sick because… there isn’t a whole lot out there about it,” Bayer tells SheKnows.

She adds, “I think one of my goals was to make it a less scary thing for kids and to help kids figure out what to do if they have a friend who’s sick.”

The book opens with two best friends playing, and everything is simple and carefree. But all that changes when one of the bears gets sick and can’t always play like she used to. It’s here that Bayer inserts her experience by offering up tips for kids on how to connect with their friends during a scary and challenging time: They can chat about school, giggle over tea, color, go for a walk, and more. The most important thing, Bayer argues, is that kids don’t lose sight of their friendships. Because as scary as illnesses are — and as different as our friends with illnesses may feel, or in some cases, look — nothing changes the fact that we love our pals.

Helping aid Bayer’s message are stunning illustrations by artist Rosie Butcher, whose sweet depictions of childhood friendship make the subject matter more approachable for young readers.

Of course, the lessons in the book don’t just resonate with kids. Adults, too, could learn how to be more compassionate towards those who seem different than them — especially in such a fraught political and social climate.

“It will be good if parents are reading this book with their kids because a common thing I found while I was sick, but more so afterward when I was out in the world talking to people, is that a lot of adults don’t know what to do,” Bayer tells SheKnows. “And a really common response when someone gets sick or goes through trauma is to say, ‘Oh, let’s leave them alone and give them their space.’ And that’s not really for the person who’s sick or going through the trauma; that’s really for the friend who’s scared and freaked out and doesn’t know what to do. I hope the parents and the kids will both see that it’s important to show up and be there, and if the friend is too sick or not up for hanging out, they will tell you that. You don’t need to assume that about them.”

Bayer says her friends innately understood what she needed, and they made every effort to make her feel included — whether they came over and dished on the latest gossip, filled her in on school assignments, or invited her to events, knowing full well that she might not be up to attending. Their kindnesses stuck with Bayer, who dedicated the book to many of her childhood friends.

“They’re still my closest friends… It really was a special thing that they showed up for me so much,” she says.

In addition to thanking her friends, Bayer paid a special tribute to the hospital staff and charitable organizations who provided her with care and opportunities (like a trip she took to Hawaii, funded by the Make-A-Wish Foundation). Today, Bayer uses her sizable platform to promote the invaluable work of children’s hospitals and foundations, such as Make-A-Wish and the Gift of Life marrow registry, which provides life-saving marrow matches for people with blood cancers.

“I really feel so grateful to all of the people and different organizations that were so nurturing to me while I was dealing with my illness. That’s why it’s so important to me to give back,” she says.

Part of her work, too, is to demonstrate to people that donating — whether time, blood, or marrow — doesn’t have to be daunting; in fact, those interested in becoming marrow donors can see if they are a match with a simple cheek swab. Bayer explained that finding a bone marrow match can be challenging for people of color, who are often underrepresented in national and worldwide registries. The more people volunteer, the better the odds are that thousands living with cancers can find a cure.

“I think it’s important to get the word out that people need to get their cheek swabbed and see if it could be a life-saving match to donate bone marrow to someone,” Bayer says. “Also, I think people think that donating bone marrow is this scary thing, where in most cases, it’s just like getting blood taken. It’s not a scary thing anymore because they found an easier way to take bone marrow. [Gift of Life is] so directly saving lives… and that’s why that organization is so important to me.”

Surviving childhood cancer didn’t just impact Bayer’s views on charity; it also helped shape her entire career in comedy.

“We would make a lot of jokes,” Bayer says. “My dad — actually, both of my parents, my brother, everyone in my family — is pretty funny. So, kind of right off the bat, we would joke about me being sick. I know it doesn’t necessarily sound that funny, but we would come up with things that would happen in the hospital. I mean, there are a million situations that would come up that we would joke about. That expanded to me joking a lot with my friends about me being sick or things I had to go through, and they really responded to that… I think it put my friends at ease, and put me at ease, in a way that made the whole experience of being sick less of a dark thing because we could joke about it. And when you’re laughing and having fun, it’s hard to feel sad or worried, and I think it was so powerful to me that the language of laughter and jokes was so healing and important during my illness that I was like, ‘Why wouldn’t I do this forever?'”

Currently, Bayer is tapping back into those childhood memories for her new Showtime series, Big Deal, which she stars in and co-created. The comedy follows Bayer’s character, who also survived childhood leukemia, as she sets out to fulfill her dream of hosting a home shopping show on TV, Deadline reports. Big Deal, directed by Michael Showalter (The Big Sick), will undoubtedly inspire laughter — but as with Bayer’s debut book, it will also serve as a reminder to children with cancer that they are strong, capable, and worthy of every happiness.

How Do You Care for a Very Sick Bear? is now available for purchase.

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