For as long as she can remember, Hayley Arceneaux has been intrigued by the stars — and soon, she'll be closer to them than ever before.
The 29-year-old physician's assistant at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, was chosen to join the first all-civilian mission into outer space, tentatively set for later this year. The trip is sponsored by 37-year-old billionaire Jared Isaacman — the CEO of the payment processing company Shift4 Payments — who purchased the private flight from SpaceX.
Besides Isaacman, the mission — named "Inspiration4" — has room for three other passengers. Anyone who donates to St. Jude during the month of February will be entered into a random drawing for a seat of their own.
Of the other two seats, one ticket will go to a business owner who uses Shift4 Payments, and the other will go to Arceneaux, who was once a patient at St. Jude long before she joined the team there.
"I was a regular 10-year-old, very involved in TaeKwonDo, and I was working my way towards my black belt when I started having some pain in my left knee," she recalls to PEOPLE. "At that point, my mom took a really good look at my leg and noticed a tumor right above my left knee. And so the next day I went with my parents to the pediatrician and she took an x-ray."
That's when Arceneaux found out she had osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that typically affects the arms or the legs, according to the American Cancer Society.
"We all just fell apart, we just all started crying," Arceneaux, who wanted to be an astronaut when she grew up, remembers.
Treatment to fight the cancer included chemotherapy sessions over the course of a year, as well as surgery to replace part of her femur with an internal prosthesis that could be expanded over time without additional surgery.
"I was really sick from the chemo and my doctor said I vomited more than any other patient she had seen," Arceneaux says. "It made me feel weak from my blood counts being low. Then I got some fevers that required more admission to the hospital. And, of course, I lost my hair."
Following the surgery, Arceneaux relearned how to walk over the course of several months as she finished her chemotherapy sessions before finally being cleared to go home. But her dreams of going to space had since been replaced by a passion for healthcare.
"I remember just crying because it was such a mixture of relief, and then also I didn't want to leave because I had become so comfortable at St. Jude, and I really felt like they were my family and I looked forward to going to St. Jude every day," she says. "And I still don't want to leave. St. Jude is my whole world."
St. Jude surprised her with a call on Jan. 5 to ask if she'd like to join Isaacman for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and she knew she couldn't pass it up.
"When I was on the phone and they asked me," she says, "I remember I had a mirror in that room, and I looked in the mirror, and my hands were shaking because it was such a shock and so overwhelming, but in an exciting way."
Isaacman says he was immediately impressed by Arceneaux's story and felt she was a perfect fit for the Inspiration4 mission.
"As I've spent time with Hayley in the earliest days of mission prep, she's everything we want our team to represent – she's interested in the world around her, devoted to caring for others and hopeful for a better future for all of us," he tells PEOPLE. "She already inspires me, and I'm certain she'll inspire many others as they get to know her in the course of our mission."
Adds Richard C. Shadyac Jr., President and CEO of ALSAC, St. Jude's fundraising group: "It has been a personal honor to watch Hayley grow up and fulfill her dreams. She will be an incredible ambassador through this mission and inspiration to children fighting cancer and survivors worldwide."
Isaacman and Arceneaux's trip will last about three to four days, and the crew will "receive commercial astronaut training by SpaceX on the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft, orbital mechanics, operating in microgravity, zero gravity, and other forms of stress testing," according to SpaceX.
While Arceneaux — named the Chief Medical Officer for the flight — will have much preparation ahead of her before she soars into space, she remains focused on the children at the hospital and how the donation campaign will help them and more to come.
"I don't know my exact schedule as far as training, like how much I'm going to have to be away this year, but St. Jude and my coworkers have been so supportive and it's been worked out," she says. "But I'm still working my job, and also getting to have this experience. What an incredible opportunity this is for St. Jude."
St. Jude Research Hospital was named one of PEOPLE's Companies that Care in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Produced in partnership with the research firm Great Place to Work, PEOPLE's annual Companies that Care list recognizes those businesses who best demonstrate support for their communities, compassion for their employees and caring for the world at large. Companies interested in applying for next year's list can visit GreatPlacetoWork.com/CompaniesThatCare for more information.
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