From IV Drips to Rocket Ships
How Hayley Arceneaux Became the World’s First Pediatric Cancer Survivor to Visit Space
by Ashley Hubbard
On September 15, 2021, Hayley Arceneaux rocketed into orbit around the earth on the first all-civilian orbital space mission. The crew successfully water-landed three days later.
As if that wasn’t epic enough, Hayley made even more history by becoming the youngest American to orbit the Earth, the first pediatric cancer survivor in space, and the first person to launch into space with a prosthetic body part.
Her Journey Through Cancer
To understand how Hayley reached this pinnacle, we have to look back at what led up to this moment. At age 10, Hayley was diagnosed with osteosarcoma of the left femur. On an ordinary Monday, she started limping after complaining about pain in her leg. The next day, doctors told her she had bone cancer. And by Friday, she and her parents were headed to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN.
After a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis, Hayley began chemotherapy, which hit her hard. Then, once the chemo had shrunk the tumor in her femur, she had surgery to have it removed and an internal prosthesis placed in her leg. The prosthesis is an artificial femur and knee that extends from the middle of her thigh bone to the middle of her calf.
Throughout her year of treatment, Hayley struggled with nausea and vomiting, hair loss, weakness, lack of appetite, and painful physical therapy. But she says the most difficult challenge, especially as a 10-year-old child, wasn’t a physical one.
“At the time, one of the hardest parts for me was feeling like I was missing out – and not just missing out but being stuck in a hospital and being sick,” Hayley shares with Coping® magazine. “To this day, there are still things that I miss out on because of the prosthesis in my leg.”
With her cancer treatments a success, finally returning home after such a long hospital stay should have felt liberating for Hayley. Instead, she was met with disappointment after disappointment. Bullies who told her that people were only nice to her because she had cancer; friends who moved on while she was away; an internal prosthesis that broke (twice!), which meant two more surgeries and years of painful physical therapy; and not being able to find her “place” amongst her high school peers.
But Hayley is the epitome of what it means to overcome obstacles. Between the ages of 10 and 15, she had three difficult surgeries on her leg, followed each time by even more arduous physical therapy. However, in the 15 years since those surgeries and the countless days of questioning whether she would ever be able to even walk, she’s climbed Machu Picchu, hiked Mt. Rainier, and gone to space.
In her memoir, Wild Ride, Hayley writes, “When I have a disappointment in life, the biggest thing I try to determine is whether it’s something I can control or not. Not being able to control unfortunate situations helps me to accept them more easily. Basically, it is what it is.”
She credits her cancer for her zest for life.
“My cancer is why I’m here being adventurous and wanting to meet new people and explore the world, and beyond,” she reflects. “It’s why I studied medicine. It’s why I said yes to space. I know the value of making the most out of every day, because there were times I didn’t know if I would have more days.”
What Hayley Wants People to Know about Childhood Cancer Survivors
“Kids with cancer are kids, and I think that’s one thing that people forget. They’re around so many adults and so they’re very mature, but they’re also just regular kids. They want to watch regular kids shows and play with regular kid toys and talk about regular kid things. I would encourage people to treat these kids as normally as possible and talk about normal things, not just cancer.”
Coming Full Circle
Ever since she was treated for cancer at St. Jude as a child, Hayley knew she wanted to come back and work there one day. After completing her undergraduate degree, Hayley studied at Louisiana State University Health Shreveport to become a physician assistant. While there, she actually applied to work at St. Jude, but never heard back. Instead, she ended up practicing emergency medicine in her hometown of Baton Rouge, LA.
However, after three years in the Emergency Department, Hayley felt it was time to go for her dream job again. This time, she got the interview – and the job.
“It’s all I’ve wanted,” Hayley says about working for the hospital that saved her life as a kid. “It was 18 years from when I was in treatment [at St. Jude] to when I walked in the doors for the first time as an employee. It’s truly the greatest honor of my life, getting to work with these kids and show them how wonderful life after cancer can be.”
Her Journey into Space
Hayley returned to St. Jude as a PA in April 2020. The following January, she was on the receiving end of a phone call from her employer asking her if she’d like to go to space as a St. Jude Ambassador. How could she say no?
The private SpaceX flight, dubbed Inspiration4, was led by tech entrepreneur and benefactor Jared Isaacman, who wanted to use the mission to raise awareness and funds for St. Jude. Named “Inspiration” because Jared hoped the mission and crew would inspire others and “4” because there were to be four crew members, as well as four main pillars: Leadership, Generosity, Prosperity, and Hope. Hope being the pillar Hayley represented.
Prior to launch, the flight crew underwent rigorous astronaut training, including spending time in a centrifuge – a large spinning device that helps astronauts get familiar with the intense G-forces they will experience when launching into space. As the medical officer on board, Hayley also spent time preparing for any in-space emergencies that could arise.
Thankfully, none of those theoretical emergencies occurred, the mission was completed without a hitch, and over $240 million was raised for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Being an Inspiration
Hayley is aware of her privilege in being given the chance to join this mission. “Not many people have the opportunity to go to space, and I definitely feel the weight of that,” she shares.
But she thinks the lessons learned from her experience can translate to any person and any opportunity.
“Not everyone has to go to space to have an incredible, life-changing experience,” she suggests. “It’s about having the courage to say yes to getting the most out of life. I had some people say things like, ‘She survived cancer and she’s just going to risk her life by going to space.’ And I just thought, They don’t get it! It’s because I survived cancer, and it’s because I love my life so much, that I want to get the most out of life. So, I would just encourage fellow survivors to say yes to opportunities that can enrich their lives.
“There are so many things in life that limit us naturally; the last thing we need to do is put the handcuffs on ourselves.”
Hayley Arceneaux is a St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital physician assistant, a career she committed to at age 10 after surviving pediatric bone cancer. She is also an astronaut, speaker, world traveler, and the author of Wild Ride: A Memoir of I.V. Drips and Rocket Ships. Keep up with Hayley on Twitter, @ArceneauxHayley, and Instagram, @HayleyArc.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2022.