Women Who Inspire: Hayley Arceneaux

Not even the sky is the limit for Hayley Arceneaux . For St. Jude patient, physician assistant and astronaut, life is a big adventure.

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Hayley Arceneaux checks the heart rate of a patient at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital

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Hayley Arceneaux still has moments when she thinks, “I can’t believe I went to space.”

She had just turned 10 when she was diagnosed with bone cancer in her left leg. Treatment at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital included chemotherapy and surgery to replace her knee and place a titanium rod in her thigh.

Hayley Arceneaux spreads her arms wide in joy on her last day of chemotherapy for childhood cancer

Hayley got through it with the support of family and St. Jude staff and discovered what she wanted to do in life — and where.

Hayley studied medicine, graduating college with a Spanish degree in 2014 and from a physician assistant program in 2016. She’d landed her dream job at St. Jude and had been working with patients for a year when she was tapped to go to space. 

SpaceX’s Inspiration4, the first all-civilian orbital mission, launched Sept. 15, 2021, and orbited for three days before splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean, raising an astronomical $250 million for St. Jude.

At 29, Hayley became the youngest American to orbit Earth, first pediatric cancer survivor in space, and first astronaut with a prosthetic, landing her on the cover of Time magazine and in the 2023 Guinness Book of World Records.

Hayley was excited to go to space but intimidated. “I knew I had a lot to learn,” she said during a 2022 event to mark the release of her memoir, “Wild Ride: A Memoir of IV Drips and Rocket Ships.” 

Hayley endured six months of grueling training. Centrifuge training to replicate the g-forces she’d experience. Sixty-hour weeks of study and simulator training. Zero-gravity flights. Climbing 14,100-foot Mount Rainier in blizzard conditions.

Hayley worried about her leg. “I never wanted to seem weaker for it,” she said.

Her relationship with her leg is complicated — and changed over time.

“In middle school and high school, you don’t want to be different,” Hayley said. She hid her scarred leg. She thought, “This is my bad leg.” Over the years, Hayley realized it didn’t stop her accomplishing her goals.

“I have two good legs,” Hayley said. They take her everywhere.

From space, Hayley talked to St. Jude patients via a live feed. At St. Jude, patients tell her they want to be physician assistants and astronauts. She tells them they can do anything.

Hayley Arceneaux in a spaceship, with space in the background. She holds a photo of herself as a childhood cancer patient.

“I do love getting the opportunity to share my experience with my patients and show them that life after cancer can be full of accomplished dreams — on or off the planet,” Hayley said. 

Seeing Earth from space, Hayley felt an overwhelming kinship. “I looked at the planet and had this sense of community with the entire world,” she said.

Hayley began traveling in earnest as a child to share her St. Jude story.

“Life is short,” Hayley said. She learned that early. “I think that’s what spurs me to travel as much as I do.” She’s visited seven continents and 35 countries.

“It changes you,” Hayley said. Going to space did, too. “I’ve just become more me,” she said. Stronger and more confident.

“What’s surprised me most about post-space life is how wonderfully normal my life is again,” Hayley said. 

Returning to St. Jude, Hayley said, “It just reaffirmed for me — I’m where I am supposed to be.”

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