Mya Guerra had always been extremely energetic, constantly running around, playing, and just full of life. Then, a few weeks shy of her sixth birthday, she began experiencing unusual symptoms that caught her parents off guard and concerned them. It was unlike anything they had seen before.
“Mya was running a fever and we thought she had a tooth infection because she had broken her tooth,” said Jessica. “We took her to urgent care and they gave her antibiotics. The fever subsided briefly but returned. Her primary care physician suspected an ear infection. Mya was dehydrated, she was pale, and she was vomiting. Her PCP advised us to keep him updated if things got worse.”
When her symptoms didn’t improve, Jessica, a radiologic technologist at Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Medical Center, and her husband, Oscar, rushed their daughter to the Emergency Center at Memorial Hermann The Woodlands, hoping that she would need only fluids. Little did they know their daughter’s situation was far more severe. She required both a blood and platelet transfusion. Since there were no available hospital beds in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) throughout the Greater Houston area in late 2022 due to the surge in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases among the pediatric population, Mya was airlifted by Memorial Hermann Life Flight® to another hospital about three hours away.
Twelve hours later, Mya was transported back to Houston by Life Flight. She was admitted to the PICU immediately at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston’s Texas Medical Center. .
“We were hit with a mix of emotions when we got the devastating news from the doctors at the previous hospital that Mya had leukemia,” said Jessica, her voice heavy with emotion. “Although we had already heard this diagnosis, the testing process had to be repeated at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital. Finally, on December 16, 2022, just before Christmas, the confirmation came: Mya was indeed battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia. It was heartbreaking for us to hear.”
Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is the most common type of bone marrow cancer in children. ALL causes bone marrow, the spongy tissue in bones, to make too many immature white blood cells called lymphoblasts. These abnormal cells crowd out healthy red and white blood cells and platelets in the blood and bone marrow, making it difficult for the body to fight infection and diseases. If left untreated, ALL can quickly become fatal.
Mya is currently receiving treatment from the Pediatric Cancer Program at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital. Led by affiliated pediatric cancer specialists on the faculty of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, the team works closely with all pediatric subspecialties at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital to combine the latest advances in research, procedures and technology to diagnose and treat a full range of pediatric cancers with the ultimate goal of delivering the best possible patient outcomes.
“When treating acute lymphoblastic leukemia, our oncologists use a comprehensive treatment approach that primarily includes a combination of different chemotherapy agents,” said Ann Marshburn, MD, an associate professor of Pediatric Hospital Medicine at McGovern Medical School and pediatric hospitalist who leads the Pediatric Cancer Program at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital. “These medications target and destroy leukemia cells throughout the body, allowing healthy cells to regenerate and restore the patient’s health. Our goal for every patient is to achieve remission and to provide the best outcome for our patients’ journey towards recovery.”
Following Mya’s ALL diagnosis, Jessica and Oscar met with Mya’s oncology care team from the Pediatric Cancer Program. The affiliated team, which included pediatric oncologists, nurses, and pharmacists, guided the family through their cancer journey and took the time to set expectations and carefully explained Mya’s specific leukemia type. They also discussed what her potential treatment plan might entail, ensuring that Mya’s family was well informed and prepared for the road ahead.
“Mya’s protocol included two and a half years of chemo,” said Jessica. “Despite the 90% cure rate for ALL, I couldn’t help but worry about the 10% possibility. But our oncologist always provided reassurance, emphasizing their team’s focus was on doing everything possible to cure her cancer.”
“When working with patients like Mya, our oncologists maintain a realistic outlook while remaining optimistic,” said Marshburn. “They do not dwell on that small percentage where treatments may not be successful. Instead, their focus is on the positive side: there is a 90% cure rate for ALL, and they channel all their efforts into achieving that goal. Our Program’s commitment lies in doing everything we can to help our patients overcome this challenge and embrace hope for a successful outcome.”
Trying to explain cancer to their 6-year-old was not easy, but Jessica and Oscar found solace in a children’s book called Cancer Party that they found online. It used a metaphor to describe cancer cells as party crashers disrupting the normal functioning of the body. Mya grasped that concept and understood chemotherapy was there to eliminate this unwanted party and restore her health.
In December 2022, Mya’s journey with chemotherapy began. The initial phase, known as induction, kept her hospitalized for a month, where she received IV chemo through a port in her chest. This phase came with its challenges as she experienced the mood swings and side effects of steroids, making her seem like a different child at times. Despite these difficult times, the care team at the hospital managed to brighten up special occasions like Christmas, New Year’s and her birthday.
“We celebrated her sixth birthday on the unit,” said Jessica. “Despite our situation, the doctors and nurses made her feel special. Their care and compassion turned tough times into hopeful ones.”
After finishing up her first month of treatment in the hospital, Mya now undergoes frequent IV chemotherapy treatments as an outpatient at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital. Although Mya’s treatment plan will take a little over two years to complete, she has made great progress.
After completing the initial phase of treatment, she has achieved remission and is currently in the maintenance phase of therapy. Mya takes chemotherapy pills every day. She visits the pediatric oncology and hematology clinic frequently for IV chemo and regular assessments and lab tests.
In addition to her regular treatments, Mya has undergone several lumbar punctures – procedures often referred to as spinal taps. Luckily for Mya, these procedures have shown no signs of leukemia cells in the fluid around her brain and spine. Bone marrow biopsies provide further confirmation that her treatment is working to rid her body of the leukemia. Her parents say their daughter has her good and bad days, sometimes feeling easily fatigued and irritable, but overall, she amazed them with her strength and bravery.
“Mya’s infectious positivity fuels me,” said Jessica. “We live by the mantra of taking it one day at a time, cherishing the present and letting go of worries about the future. We are grateful for the care that Mya has received from her doctors and nurses, and we are hopeful for her complete recovery.”
Although Jessica admits she is still trying to understand the purpose behind her family’s difficult journey, in the meantime, her focus is on raising awareness about childhood cancer. She has donated books like, “When a Kid Fights Cancer” and has made hairbows for other cancer patients at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital. It is her way of giving back and making a difference.
“I wanted to share Mya’s story with people to shed light on the strength and resilience of children facing cancer,” said Jessica. “My daughter is a true warrior, and her unwavering positivity inspires us all. While this journey can be unpredictable, it is important to just take it one day at a time.”
Each year in September, the Pediatric Cancer Program at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital recognizes Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Learn more about how our team is changing lives daily for children and families impacted by pediatric cancer and blood disorders »