Hayley Arceneaux’s Road from Cancer Patient to Astronaut (with Help from St. Jude’s)

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At age 10, Hayley Arceneaux was a healthy, active youngster who had just earned her black belt in Tae Kwon Do. Shortly thereafter, she began experiencing leg pain and discovered a lump above her leg. The diagnosis came as a complete shock: bone cancer. Up until that point, everyone that Hayley had known with cancer had died, so she feared her fate would be the same. “God must hate me,” she thought.

Twenty years later, Hayley has gone on to become a physician’s assistant at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, take part in numerous medical mission trips, and even orbit the earth three times as an astronaut on SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission. And her perception of God has changed as well. So how did all this come about? Hayley shares her story in the book “Wild Ride: A Memoir of I.V. Drips and Rocket Ships,” and we discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup.” (podcast below).

A few days after her diagnosis, Hayley and her parents traveled to St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis, TN, for her cancer treatments. That was where she developed a renewed sense of hope because the staff “made her feel like a normal kid that was going to be okay.”

Hayley’s road to healing, however, wasn’t easy. She endured a year of intensive chemotherapy, many blood draws per week, surgery to remove the bone affected by the tumor and replace it with an internal prosthesis, and numerous physical therapy appointments.

Despite all that darkness, Hayley focused on the light. She explained, “When I think back to that year having cancer, I don’t think about all the medical stuff, per se. I think about the fun times, the incredible friendships that formed. There [were] a lot of happy and special moments…Going through cancer like I did that year made me who I am, and it gave me so much love and zest for life.”

In addition, Hayley came to find comfort in her faith: “My initial reaction was, God must hate me. But I come from this incredible uplifting family, and immediately my mom said, ‘That’s not true. God loves you.’ While it was scary, we found faith as something that we could hold on to. It gave us a lot of hope. One thing that we did, my mom would write down specific Scripture that we would concentrate on and say out loud every day, almost like mantras. So faith and prayer really helped us through that year. It has helped through the many difficult times in the years that followed.”

Hayley relished her time at St. Jude, and even began volunteering there when she was a patient. When people were at the hospital donating blood, she would go around the room and thank them for what they were doing. The employees in the blood donor room even created a work badge for Hayley, dubbing her “Gratitude Administrator.”

That was one of the seeds which led to her growing up with the specific goal of working at St. Jude’s. And though it took many years, Hayley eventually became a physician’s assistant there who works with leukemia and lymphoma patients. What came next, however, was a complete shock, though one she quickly embraced.

Hayley’s superiors called and asked if she wanted to become a member of the all-civilian crew on SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission to space, which was created to be a fundraiser for St. Jude’s with the aim of collecting $200 million. Hayley’s brother was a rocket scientist, but she herself had never considered becoming an astronaut as a life goal. Still, her adventurous spirit led her to quickly say yes and take part in the academically-challenging, physically-grueling training.

At the start of the process, the mission commander, Jared, told Hayley and her fellow astronauts-to-be that they needed to get “comfortable with discomfort.” That held true in their first exercise: climbing Mount Rainier in Washington. Because of the prosthetic in her leg, Hayley had never done any climbing and didn’t know if she’d be able to make it. She trained for a month beforehand, but nothing could compare to the actual climb, which took nine and a half hours on their first day. They spent two nights in tents on the mountain, and coming down produced its own challenges because of her leg. But Hayley accomplished the task with help from her fellow trainees.

For Hayley, getting comfortable with discomfort is also good life advice. She said, “Anyone who can go out of their comfort zone should do it. One thing I talk about in my book…is the importance of saying ‘yes’ to opportunities that can change your life. Sometimes these opportunities that come your way can even be scary. But [it’s] important…to say that ‘yes,’ and it will change your life in such incredible ways. And it will make you even more you.”

Traveling to space and orbiting the earth three times also gave Hayley a new perspective on God and a deeper appreciation for her faith. She said, “I’ve always had faith. There had to be a lot of prayers and trust before launch, before reentry while I was in space. Someone has described that view of Earth from space as, ‘This is what God sees.’ And it really is life-changing to see the Earth from space. I felt incredibly fortunate for this plan that God had for my life. It’s completely His plan. It’s something I never could have seen coming. So I felt in a lot of those ways that helped build my faith as well.”

Devoted to promoting St. Jude’s as she is, Hayley found two ways to make the patients there a part of her mission. First, there was a video conference held between a number of the kids being treated at St. Jude’s and the Inspiration4 crew while they were orbiting the earth. Hayley saw this as a way to give the kids hope for the future, telling them “If I can do this, you can do this.”

In addition, Hayley contacted the parents of the friends and patients she has lost to cancer over the past 20 years and asked them for a photo of their child. “Then, while I was in orbit,” she said, “I took a picture of their child’s photo with the Earth behind them and was able to send the pictures to the families afterward saying their child made it to space.”

Hayley’s compassion for her patients is evident, both in our interview and in “Wild Ride.” She has even participated in several medical mission trips because she wants to bring hope and healing to those in need. She said, “I’ve always had a heart for global medicine and I think part of that goes back to knowing how fortunate I am to have gotten such incredible healthcare when I really needed it. Also, at a young age, realizing that kids who are born in other parts of the world don’t have access to that same type of healthcare…I actually majored in Spanish in undergrad…because I wanted to work at St. Jude with the many Spanish speaking families. So with my background in Spanish – when there were opportunities for me to do medical mission trips, especially in Central and South America – I jumped at those opportunities.”

“The trips I’ve been on have been so impactful for me,” Hayley continued..”It’s incredible and inspiring meeting so many people, especially who come from different cultures and from all over the world, and what you can learn from them because they have so much to teach…One thing that’s struck me from my early days of travel is how much we have in common. Even though the language sounds different, even though the food and the currency and all of that is different, the core of humanity is the same. Also, looking at the earth from space, I was  impacted with how united I felt with my fellow earthlings…because from space, it’s all one.”

Moving forward, Hayley continues her work at St. Jude, bringing hope and healing to patients for whom she models what being a pediatric cancer survivor looks like. And when she hits times of darkness in her life now, she knows how to approach them.

Hayley concluded, “Even as a kid, there were certain times where I felt like I was losing my hope, and it just made the situation around me so much harder. So I’ve learned how important it is to maintain some kind of hope. Then also, to appreciate the days that you’re in and try to find joy where you are because especially with going through an illness, you can try to look at that light at the end of the tunnel and concentrate on that. But sometimes you need to look around you and be where you are and appreciate those days that you’re in…For me as a kid, some of that came through putting on dance shows with my other friend who was going through treatment or going around and thanking people who were donating blood. Those little jobs I would find at the hospital gave me a lot of purpose. I think that’s something that is important to focus on, too. You don’t have to just wait until the end to find your happiness; you can find your happiness now, too.”

(To listen to my full interview with Hayley Arceneaux, click on the podcast link):

Hayley Arceneaux interview – Christopher Closeup