Inspiring Survivor Stories


Sharing our stories of overcoming tough situations can uplift, teach, and inspire others facing difficult scenarios. Recently I encountered the moving stories of two young women who turned around their devastating cancer diagnosis by making creative, productive choices, that now encourage others to courageously face their life challenges.

Hayley Arceneaux, now 29, had pediatric cancer. At age 10 she had just completed her black belt in taekwondo when she complained of pain in her leg. A visible bump over her left knee was found to be a cancerous tumor. Her family took her to St. Jude Hospital where she was treated for bone cancer which involved a year of chemotherapy, and her femur bone replaced with a metal prosthetic device. Physical therapy was intense, but her hospital experience was so positive that, even at her young age, she decided she was going to return to St. Jude to work when she grew up.

Today Hayley works at St. Jude Hospital as a physician assistant helping young patients, and their families, as they process the diagnosis just received and decisions that must be made. Her positive personality, personal experience, and honesty in answering children’s questions have made her loved by everyone she works with. She helps children visualize their future because she is an example of the sky not even being her limit. She has been chosen to be part of the SpaceX crew that will have people from St. Jude Hospital on board its upcoming flight.

The sponsor of this flight, Jared Isaacman, did not want this to be a jaunt for the super wealthy. He wanted it to make a difference in people’s lives, so seats on this flight are being used as a fundraiser for St. Jude Hospital. The mission is called Inspiration4. The children Hayley works with are excited to hear her personal cancer story, and more about the adventure she will go on because it gives them hope for their own future. She will be the youngest person to go into space, and the first wearing a prosthetic. And in the process, she is helping to raise millions of dollars for St. Jude Hospital.

Eckhart Tolle writes, “You can use a challenge to awaken you, or you can allow it to pull you even deeper into sleep.” I appreciate Hayley’s story because she has chosen to use her own cancer experience to help inspire and encourage others. Her intentional decisions along the way are affecting more people than she ever thought possible.

Kris Hallenga, from Cornwall, England, was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer at age 23, and given 2 ½ years to live. That was 12 years ago. At the time she didn’t think women that young could get breast cancer. Wondering if her diagnosis might have been different if she had acted sooner, she decided to start something to help other young women avoid getting to stage four cancer the way she did.

Her organization named CoppaFeel! now has a staff of 17 who enthusiastically, and irreverently, work to “spread the boob love.” They do flash mobs, publicity stunts (cancer stats on the Houses of Parliament), teacher training, and policy advocacy. The BBC did an hour documentary on Kris, and she’s been given an honorary doctorate for her research. Because of her efforts, the UK now has cancer awareness in its school curriculum. During England’s COVID lockdown, Kris spent her time writing a memoir of her cancer experience that will be published this summer. Using her usual sense of humor, the title is Glittering A Turd. As she wrote she realized how therapeutic it was for her to record her story.

And while she’s doing all this, she rarely mentions her ongoing cancer which has created a series of crisis over the years. The full body scans, oral chemotherapy, and daily pain are part of her life, but it doesn’t dim her love of life, or her happiness. She understands the Buddhist wisdom that says, “One of the happiest moments in life is when you find the courage to let go of what you can’t change.”

Kris chooses to live in gratitude for every day, enjoying friends and family, and life’s simple pleasures. Her message is, “I want us to find our superpowers, our strengths, our big-ness without terminal illness. I am giving everyone permission to exist fully without cancer. Without turds. Just glitter.”

Both Kris and Hayley have chosen to use their cancer to more fully enjoy their own life, and help others in similar circumstances. Whatever form our challenges come in, we choose our attitude and actions. Let’s remember these two examples and let’s remember to appreciate each day and to be a source of encouragement for others by sharing our stories. Sometimes all it takes to lift a person’s spirits is to know someone understands.

I’d like to close with a quote by Abraham Hicks about choices. “Be as happy as you want to be in a world gone mad. Be as safe as you want to be in a world that is afraid of everything. Be as healthy as you want to be in a world that is mostly sick. Don’t’ let the statistics that someone else has created affect you. You get to choose – you are wise enough, smart enough, deliberate enough.”

Until Next Time – Sylvia

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