It might surprise readers to hear Hayley Arceneaux describe her literary debut about pediatric bone cancer, Wild Ride: A Memoir of IV Drips and Rocket Ships (Convergent, Sept. 6), as “lighthearted.” But being diagnosed with cancer at age 10 set the course toward Arceneaux’s biggest adventure. In 2021, at age 29, she was chosen as one of four civilian astronauts to travel to space aboard a private flight sponsored by the spacecraft manufacturer SpaceX. The flight, called Inspiration4, raised more than $200 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where Arceneaux works as a physician’s assistant. The mission made Arceneaux the youngest American to orbit the earth, the first pediatric cancer survivor to travel to space, and, having received metal rods to replace parts of her leg bones during cancer treatment, the first astronaut with a prosthetic body part.
You write you’re grateful you had cancer. Why?
When I first heard the word “cancer” after what I thought was going to be a regular doctor’s visit, I thought a cancer diagnosis was the same as a death sentence. Having made it through to the other side, I have such an appreciation for life, and just so much love for every day that I’m here. It’s ultimately because of my love for life that I said yes to going on this space mission. It’s because I wanted to make the most of all the days I’m here. This is something I share with my patients as well. I tell them that having cancer will make them who they are.
How did your cancer diagnosis impact your Christian faith?
I was so shaken when I got that cancer diagnosis. My initial 10-year old response was, well, God must hate me. But then I really saw through my cancer journey, how loved I was by God, because I saw how things came together in such a beautiful way, and how people were placed in my life who really made an impact on me and ultimately led me down the path where I am now.
The book describes how you brought photos of friends that you had lost to cancer with you to space, as well as a photo of yourself when you were going through treatment. Can you talk more about this?
It was very healing being able to bring my friends to space, because all the friends that I brought had such a huge impact on my life. My favorite part of the process was contacting all their families because these are people that I have loved for years. I got to contact them and share my idea to bring their child’s photo to space, and then just see how happy it made them. Several shared with me that they appreciated that they felt their child would never be forgotten. And then getting to see my friends in orbit, it really did feel like they were with me in so many ways on a spiritual level. That was a very meaningful part of the mission to me.
What do you hope readers take away from Wild Ride?
The readers that will connect the most with my book will be anyone that’s gone through a tough time—and that doesn’t necessarily mean childhood cancer. Everyone has had something in their life that they’ve had to overcome. I wrote the book because I wanted to share that there will be tough times. But then there will be incredible times after that, better than you can even imagine. I really wanted to encourage people when they are presented with incredible life-changing opportunities, to say yes, even if the opportunities scare them. What you learn about yourself from going through something that scares you is priceless.
Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer and coauthor of ‘The Yoga Effect: A Proven Program for Depression and Anxiety’ (Da Capo / Lifelong, 2019).