Fort Worth, TX,
11:41 AM

Boosting Research Toward a Cure for Childhood Cancer

Cook Children's annual 5K walk The Blast raises funds and cheers on cancer warriors.

By Jean Yaeger

Marlee Munguia has a rare cancer that wasn’t responding to standard chemotherapy when she was first diagnosed at age 3.

Marlee Munguia1But her doctors at Cook Children’s had other strategies to try, including immunotherapy and two stem cell transplants. Thanks to those treatments – along with radiation, surgeries and scans over the past three years – Marlee has a healthier and happier outlook. 

Now age 6, she still needs treatment for neuroblastoma, a type of cancer involving nerve cells.  Cancer, however, doesn’t define her. Marlee rests up after each medical procedure or inpatient stay at the medical center in Fort Worth. Then she resumes her full schedule of play, horseback riding and representing Cook Children’s as a patient ambassador. 

Marlee shines in her role as ambassador, which suits her outgoing personality and chatty friendliness. She attends charity events, poses for publicity photos and even spoke on the radio to share her love for Cook Children’s. As her mom puts it … Marlee is social as a butterfly and fierce as a lion.  

Those ambassador duties put Marlee and her family in the spotlight to help promote The Blast fundraiser. The Blast is a 5-kilometer walk on April 6 benefitting the Cook Children’s Hematology and Oncology Center.

And it’s a cause close to the hearts of Marlee’s parents, Lani and Mason Munguia. That’s because everyMarlee Munguia16 dollar donated at The Blast brings more research, clinical trials and treatments closer to home for cancer patients in North Texas and beyond.

“Without these newer drugs that require research and research money, Marlee wouldn’t be here today,” Lani said. “We need new drugs and less harsh drugs that don’t cause so many side effects. We can’t do that without research.”

Cancer therapies work by destroying the cancer cells, but they often cause brutal side effects to the rest of the body. Marlee lost much of her hair, eyebrows and eyelashes. At times she couldn’t eat because of vomiting and the sores in her mouth. One of her transplants led to septic shock and a rare liver complication, putting her into the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU).

Cook Children’s oncologist Chelsee Greer, D.O. points out that just 4% of the annual federal budget for cancer research goes toward pediatrics. Financial donations help close the gap and can lead to development of new therapies that take less of a toll on children, she said. 

“Patients and families deserve more options, and that’s why it is so important to continue ongoing research and clinical trials,” Dr. Greer said. “It’s also important that the community help support organizations close to home, like Cook Children’s. Donations to our hospital help families here in DFW and across the state of Texas.”

About 15,000 children and adolescents are diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As therapies improved, cancer death rates among those 14 and younger have dropped nearly 70% over the past 40 years.

The Blast aims to raise awareness and salute everyone touched by childhood cancer. What inspires the mission? “Together, we’ll walk in celebration of the children who have fought and won, in remembrance of those who have passed and in hope for a world in which pediatric cancer does not exist.”Marlee Munguia4

Team Marlee Strong will be out in force for The Blast. Her supporters include Munguia family members, friends and baseball players from Fort Worth’s Chisolm Trail High School, where Mason coaches. Here’s more of Marlee’s story, and information about ways you can join The Blast to help #blastawaycancer.

Resilience and Hope

Marlee began getting sick frequently when she was 3. In January 2021, severe pain sent her to a hospital in Odessa, her hometown, where doctors found a mass growing in her chest and abdomen. The main tumor was behind her heart, wrapped around the aorta and blood vessels that supplied the spinal cord.

It was too stormy to fly, so an ambulance took her right away to Cook Children’s Medical Center – Fort Worth. Chemotherapy started a few days later. Marlee needed a round every 21 days, staying in the hospital for at least a week afterward to be monitored.

Mason and Lani wanted to remain close by because of how frequently Marlee would be admitted. So Mason’s student athletes and their friends in Odessa boxed up their belongings; the Munguias found local housing and now live near Saginaw.

“We never got to really say goodbye to our home. It was sold by a friend of ours who was a real estate agent,” Lani said. “We never went back for like a year.”

Marlee’s course of treatment since the beginning has included several surgeries, 12 chemo rounds and 18 days of radiation. During one point in 2021, she was hospitalized for an 80-day stretch that spanned Thanksgiving and Christmas.

For much of 2023, her scans looked good. She had the energy to swim, play tennis and start kindergarten. Treatments ended and her ports were taken out. But last September, cancer was found in her femur bone.

It was a crushing setback. But Marlee resumed her immunotherapy and radiation sessions with a spirit of resilience and upbeat positivity.

Marlee Munguia10Lani says her daughter shows up for appointments with a smile on her face and a wave for everyone in the medical center’s hallways. Headed to a checkup one day, for instance, Marlee chose to wear a yellow dress and hairbow. A photo captures her sunny radiance. 

She’s very much at home at Cook Children’s. Visits with the staff – including the drama therapist, Child Life specialists and Sit … Stay … PLAY therapy dogs – make Marlee’s experience as good as it can possibly be, even during a painful procedure or on the days where she ran fever and had no appetite.   

The older she gets, the more she understands that the pokes and side effects of cancer treatment aren’t easy. But she considers Cook Children’s a place where she’s safe and loved. The Glitter Girls paint her fingernails, the nurses play Roblox with her, and Marlee sings for the staff.

The grateful Munguia family leans on prayer and their support system. And they return the love by doing what they can to help other families at Cook Children’s. One year they put together 10 holiday baskets with snacks, gift cards and toys for children spending Christmas in the Bone Marrow Unit. 

Marlee’s oncologist describes her as spunky and sensitive to the needs of other people.

“Even at such a young age she understands the importance of helping others,” Dr. Greer said. “During the difficult times she has the ability to spread joy. She and her family are always looking for ways to help.”Marlee Munguia9

As an ambassador for Cook Children’s, Marlee raised pledges on the Radiothon. She decorated gingerbread as part of the Cookies & Castles fundraiser for the oncology department. Her picture made the Spring 2024 cover of the Cook Children’s Health Foundation’s Promise magazine.

 Marlee likes to share her pride in Cook Children’s, Lani said. These days she takes homebound lessons for school, enjoys horse camp and is asking for drum lessons. Marlee plans to join her team at The Blast as long as she’s feeling well enough.

Lani said making a donation for research means everything for children with cancer.

“And it gives them hope. If we don’t have hope, then we really struggle every day to get through this battle,” she said. “I think that’s why The Blast has been so important to me, because it gives parents and children hope when standard treatment isn’t working.”

More about The Blast

The 17th annual The Blast will take place April 6, 2024, at Panther Island Pavilion in Fort Worth. Families and friends of kids like Marlee walk every year to find a cure for childhood cancer.

When a child is battling cancer, their family suffers as well. Parents often must spend days and weeks away from work and their other children as they support their child through inpatient admission. Siblings struggle with feelings of loss and loneliness.

You don’t have to know someone who has been affected by childhood cancer to get involved. The Blast is a way to stand with these families in their hope for a brighter future. Show your support by signing up to walk, making a donation and spreading the word.

Visit to sign up for The Blast 2024 today.



Get to know Chelsee Greer, D.O.

Chelsee GreerDr. Greer’s path to medicine was shaped in part by her own experience with childhood cancer as a teenager. After medical school, her fellowship in hematology/oncology focused on earlier detection of possible health consequences from the therapies that cancer patients receive. She enjoys research – but her true passion is patient care. She chose her career in pediatric oncology because of the privilege of taking care of children, and the relationships a physician builds with them and their families.

Learn more about Dr. Greer here. 


At Cook Children's Hematology and Oncology Center in Fort Worth, we work every day to bring more innovative research, groundbreaking medical treatments and trailblazing clinical trials to children with cancer and blood disorders -- so that one day, our wish to erase kid cancer and blood disorders will come true. Learn more here about our team and specialty programs.