At age 11, Courtney Hayworth already had the teen thing down pat. She liked to shop for clothes, listen to metal bands and sneak out her bedroom window to meet friends in tiny Craig, Mo. (pop. 329). But one morning shortly after Thanksgiving, 2000, her dad heard screams coming from her bedroom. "She came running down the stairs," says Terry Hayworth, 41, a truck driver. "It looked like she had a spider bite under her left arm." At first doctors thought so too, but soon realized the lump the size of a baseball was a symptom of something more frightening: Courtney had an aggressive cancer called Ewing's sarcoma "The doctor told her mother, Misty, 'There's nothing to do,'" says Terry. "And I go, 'No. This is my little girl. There's another option.' "

After two rounds of chemotherapy and radiation that didn't reverse the spread of the cancer, today the Hay-worths have found that other option: a promising new stem cell transplant developed at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. In July Courtney, now 15, became the first patient with Ewing's cancer to have her tumors treated with a procedure called a haplo transplant. Using a device that creates a magnetic field, doctors isolated stem cells from her father's blood and injected them into Courtney's bloodstream. If all goes well, they say, the new cells will boost Courtney's gravely depleted defenses, giving her the jump-start she needs to survive. The procedure maybe her last chance. "Hopefully, her dad's cells are in there fighting and working for her," says Misty, 39.

Although ill from the side effects of the transplant, including temporary loss of strength in her legs, Courtney manages a smile Oct. 8 as she receives intravenous medication. "I just have to go day by day," she says. So far, 96 children treated with haplo transplants at St. Jude have survived diseases like sickle-cell anemia and leukemia when all other treatment has failed. What's more, the new technology allows the patient's parents to act as stem cell donors—an important breakthrough, since until now donors needed to have a genetic makeup nearly identical to the patient's. Siblings are the best candidates for donation, but 70 percent of patients cannot find a match within their own families; matches in the general population are also hard to find. "The only chance to cure many of these diseases is a transplant," explains Dr. Rupert Handgretinger, a St. Jude researcher who helped develop the new procedure, "and for patients who don't have a donor, it's a death sentence."

Giving kids like Courtney a chance is exactly what the late comedian Danny Thomas had in mind when he founded St. Jude in 1962 and ordered that patients be accepted regardless of their ability to pay. Since then, the facility has grown into one of the world's premier pediatric-research centers. "I remember he drew his first idea of what it should look like on the cardboard that came out of his shirts," says Thomas's daughter Mario, 66, a major fund raiser for the hospital today. "The goal is that everybody gets to take their child home. That's the prize, when the parent leaves with the child and says, 'She's cancer-free.' "

For Courtney, who is temporarily living with her mother in Memphis, that goal is still far from a reality. Growing up with her half sister Amber, now 23, Hayworth was always something of a tomboy—with a sensitive side. "She had a ton of stuffed animals, but as soon as one of the local boys would come over she'd run up to her room and throw them in her closet," says her mom. Since her diagnosis four years ago, Courtney has had to grow up fast. As the tumor in the wall of her chest spread to her lungs, she endured chemo and radiation until her body could tolerate no more. Mentally, she had almost given up when her first boyfriend, 18-year-old Ryan Dujardin of Morgan Hill, Calif., whom she met over the Internet, persuaded her to keep up the fight. "He was there for me," says Courtney, who spends free time reading her teen Bible and making bead necklaces.

So far, the transplant seems to be reviving her immune system, although the full results won't be known for months. Lately she's been encouraged by the arrival of her sister Amber's newborn daughter, Gracie, and visits from her boyfriend, especially given the great distance he has to travel to see her. "I tell him he doesn't have to come, but he wants to," says Courtney. "That feels good." Most of all she's sustained by a simple dream of being like anybody else. "I want to be a normal teenager," she says. "You know, dances and hanging out. Getting in trouble."

Kyle Smith. Giovanna Breu and Lorna Grisby in Memphis

  • Contributors:
  • Giovanna Breu,
  • Lorna Grisby.