St. Jude physician assistant Hayley Arceneaux offers a unique perspective for the patients she sees every day in the hospital's Leukemia and Lymphoma inpatient service. As a childhood cancer survivor who was treated at St. Jude, she's a comforting voice for new patients and a shining example to survivors of a world of possibilities.
Arceneaux, who was diagnosed with the bone cancer osteosarcoma as a child, has experienced the St. Jude mission from several viewpoints—as a patient, a student researcher, an intern, a fundraiser and now as a clinician.
“It’s an empowering feeling to take off the St. Jude patient arm band and put on a name badge,” Arceneaux said. “It’s a physical representation of how far I’ve come.”
At age 10, Arceneaux was diagnosed with osteosarcoma after she initially began feeling pain in her leg while training for a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. Ensuing tests revealed an egg-sized tumor above her left knee. After being referred to St. Jude, she underwent chemotherapy and limb-saving surgery by Michael Neel, MD, of the Surgery Department. During the operation, doctors removed the tumor along with most of her femur and replaced it with a prosthetic device that could expand as she grew.
After completing treatment and returning to St. Jude regularly for continuing care, she was one of 60 college students selected for the 2013 St. Jude Pediatric Oncology Education (POE) program. The program allows college students who are interested in the biomedical sciences opportunities to work with a St. Jude mentor for a summer session. Arceneaux researched Streptococcus pneumoniae in the Infectious Diseases lab of Jason Rosch, PhD.
“That experience was a great opportunity to work alongside some of the best researchers in the world,” she said.
Arceneaux returned to college in the fall, where she studied abroad in Spain. Her ties to St. Jude continued at Southeastern Louisiana University. She was involved with several ALSAC fundraising events and interned with the organization.
She’ll soon take her St. Jude experience to out-of-this-world heights as one of four crew members aboard the first all-civilian space mission Inspiration4 later this year. Representing the worlds of science, commerce and humanitarian endeavors, SpaceX’s Inspiration4 will include a diverse crew commanded by pilot and adventurer Jared Isaacman, founder and CEO of Shift4 Payments.
The crew symbolizes the best of humanity with each member representing one of the four qualities of Leadership, Hope, Prosperity and Generosity. Arceneaux’s seat on the rocket embodies Hope. The flight will raise awareness and funds for St. Jude. The remaining crew was announced March 30.
Joining Arceneaux on the mission are entrepreneur Sian Proctor (Prosperity) and aerospace industry employee Christopher Sembroski (Generosity). The Generosity seat was randomly selected through a St. Jude fundraising campaign.
Arceneaux, a 29-year-old Louisiana native, is an adventurer at heart with a personal goal of traveling to all seven continents. She’s visited 21 countries total including Colombia, Italy, Mexico, Morocco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, and Switzerland. Arceneaux also spent a month volunteering in local hospitals in Peru.
When she was approached about the opportunity to represent St. Jude in space, she reacted first in disbelief, then enthusiasm. Her family, including a brother and sister-in-law who are aerospace engineers, strongly supported her decision.
Arceneaux credits her cancer experience and St. Jude with helping prepare her for this challenge.
“It taught me to kind of expect the unexpected and go with it,” she said.
Arceneaux earned an undergraduate degree in Spanish in 2014 and a physician assistant degree in 2016. She joined the hospital last year, fulfilling her dream of returning to St. Jude as a care provider.
Arceneaux will begin space training later this year. She hopes her involvement raises more awareness about the hospital while also inspiring current patients. When the rocket enters orbit, Arceneaux will become the first person with an internal prosthesis in space.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but also such an incredible thing for St. Jude,” Arceneaux said. “My goal for this mission is to show pediatric cancer patients and survivors that anything is possible. The sky is not the limit.”