St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
Hayley’s interest in space dates back to her childhood, when her family visited the NASA complex on a vacation. “I got to see where the astronauts trained and of course wanted to be an astronaut after that – who doesn’t?”
But a pediatric cancer diagnosis at age 10 put her dreams of space travel on hold. Her experience at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital not only cured her, but also changed her career aspirations. Now a physician assistant at St. Jude, she’s giving back to the place that saved her life as a child. In a journey that’s come full circle, she was an ambassador for the research hospital on the Inspiration4 mission to space.
In addition to being part of the first all-civilian crew to travel to space, she made history in another way, becoming the first person with a prosthesis to go into orbit.
Hayley was 10 years old and preparing to earn her black belt in Taekwondo when one of her knees began to ache. A doctor at her school in Louisiana examined the knee, noting it could possibly be a sprain. With Hayley's father having orthopedic surgery on his knee, the family thought the little girl might be having sympathy pains. A few months later, Hayley’s mother Colleen noticed her daughter limping and took a closer look.
"You could just see the tumor," Colleen said. "It was above the knee on the inside. It was the size of an egg. I just looked at that…and panicked. I knew that was something bad."
Hayley’s pediatrician confirmed Colleen’s fears; tests revealed Hayley suffered from osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. The doctor told them to go home while they called the family’s HMO about treatment options. Colleen described it as "another sinking feeling."
At home, the family researched their options then asked for a referral to St. Jude, where they learned they would never receive a bill from St. Jude for treatment, travel, housing or food so they could focus on helping Hayley live.
Hayley’s treatment at St. Jude included chemotherapy and limb-sparing surgery, which saved her leg. During the limb-sparing operation, surgeons removed the tumor along with most of her femur bone and replaced it with a prosthetic device that could expand, without additional surgery, as Hayley grew.
Following the surgery, months of intense physical therapy were required in order for her to walk without support.
During her time at St. Jude, Hayley became an ambassador for the organization, volunteering as a “gratitude administrator” in the Blood Donor Center and sharing her story to raise funds and awareness for the research hospital. Her tireless efforts earned her recognition as one of Louisiana’s Young Heroes in 2003.
Hayley’s treatment experience at St. Jude also began shaping her future. "I really like it," she said at the time. "I am not in a hurry to leave because I like it here and the nurses are real nice. I don’t think of it as in a hospital, I think of it as a place where I am surrounded in a lot of love.”
After completing treatment, Hayley returned to St. Jude regularly for continuing care, and in 2013 she returned as a summer intern in the Pediatric Oncology Education program. “For me there was something about taking off the arm band and putting on a name badge that was really empowering,” she said. “I think it will help the families if they know I was a St. Jude survivor as well. It’s very important for me that patients who are here now and patients who will be here in the future receive as much hope and as much love as I did, if not more.”
She obtained an undergraduate degree in Spanish in 2014, and a Physician Assistant degree in 2016. Hayley now works at St. Jude with leukemia and lymphoma patients, fulfilling her long-held dream to return to the hospital as a bilingual care provider.
Hayley is a world traveler who set a goal for herself to travel to every continent before she turns 30. Her past travels have included a month volunteering in local hospitals in Peru plus visits to Nicaragua, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Morocco, New Zealand, Switzerland, Mexico, Colombia and more.
Posts by Hayley Arcenaux
Cancer Survivor and Space Traveler Hayley Arceneaux on Stepping Out of Your Comfort ZoneDecember 23, 2021
Hayley Arceneaux, a St. Jude physician assistant and former cancer patient, shares thoughts and insights about her space travel.Read this blog post