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VOL. 45 | NO. 44 | Friday, October 29, 2021

Watching daughter play fuels soccer mom’s cancer battle

By Rhiannon Potkey

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Sharon Katz has watched two daughters complete their college soccer careers and go on to medical school and is determined to see daughter Kara do the same.

-- Photograph Provided

The infinity ring hidden under white athletic tape is a constant source of inspiration during games for Tara Katz. The University of Tennessee junior outside back never removes it from her left hand.

The ring symbolizes the enduring love between Katz and her mother. It reminds Katz about the strength her mom has displayed in a fight much greater than anything happening on a soccer field.

Sharon Katz was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer when her youngest daughter was in the eighth grade. The family wasn’t sure Sharon would be able to watch Tara make it through high school in Montgomery, Alabama, yet alone witness her college athletic career.

But Sharon was determined. She’s endured countless treatments and surgeries over the last seven years to keep the cancer from holding her down.

Even when fatigue and pain has overwhelmed her, she’s found a way to be in the stands cheering for Tara.

“Having her be able to watch me play pushes me to want to do better and do everything to show her how much I am working at this and how much I love it,” Tara says. “Honestly, I think my games help keep her going most of the time.”

Tennessee (14-2, 7-2) enters its final regular-season game Thursday night against Kentucky at Regal Stadium with a chance to clinch its second consecutive SEC East divisional title.

Sharon and her husband, Brad, a pain management doctor, have been to nearly every game and plan to follow the team’s postseason run.

Sharon, a former nurse, was diagnosed with non-smoker’s lung cancer in 2014. The cancer metastasized to her brain and lymph nodes. She has undergone chemotherapy, radiation and targeted immunotherapy.

Sharon’s recent radiation treatment caused a vertebrae in her back to become weak and collapse. She had surgery earlier this week to alleviate the severe back pain.

Tennessee’s games provide Sharon with a form of medicine that can’t be found in any hospital or pharmacy.

“Every single one has been so meaningful,” Sharon acknowledges. “I would be fighting to stay alive for all of my kids, but it gives me meaning and a reason to get up and go every weekend despite the broken back, the nausea, the vomiting and all of the other stuff I am going through with the chemotherapy and radiation.”

Tara is a biology major at UT with aspirations of attending medical school. She is following a well-known family path.

Her two older sisters played college soccer and entered medical school. Her eldest sister, Erin, who played at Brown, is in her first year of residency, and Brenna, who played at Rhodes College, is in her second year of medical school.

The family has been watching Tara play since she was 3. They share group texts during her college games, and her parents re-watch the games they attended once they get home to hear the comments from broadcasters.

“To be able to see her blossom into the amazing player that she is and be really happy with her decision to go to Tennessee makes me so happy,” Sharon says. “Coach (Brian) Pensky has been a godsend to our family and very supportive to her and what she is going through with a mother who is as sick as I’ve been.”

Pensky is continually awed by Tara’s ability to compartmentalize her athletic, academic and personal life without complaint.

“I don’t know how many people really know what she is dealing with and living with on a daily basis. The fear of losing your mom during such important years of a young girl’s life is unfathomable,” Pensky explains. “But Tara is a champion. She comes to practice every single day bringing so much energy and a smile. Given what she is going through, it’s so impressive.”

Although it may look easy to outsiders, Tara struggles internally.

“It is hard for me to keep my mind focused,” she says. “When I am at practice, I try to focus just on practice. And when I am doing school, I try to focus only on school. But my mom is always in the back of my mind and I am thinking about her. It’s hard to separate the two sometimes.”

Given the family’s experience in the medical profession, they all knew exactly what Sharon’s diagnosis meant and how challenging her fight would be.

“I really thought she would have seven months to live and not seven years,” Brad admits. “But she’s been able to stay on the cutting edge of advances in medicine and some treatments that didn’t exist seven years ago have helped us be here.”

Brad has remained devoted to helping his wife and faithfully drives her to every game to watch Tara play.

“Tara has been one reason to fight as hard as she does,” Brad adds. “She wanted to get Tara out of high school, and now the goal is to get Tara out of college. That is very meaningful to us and helps us keep pushing on those really bad days for Sharon to dig deeper than I probably could keep pushing.”

Tara’s team has comforted her in times of need.

Last year, after receiving her first start at outside back in a win against rival Vanderbilt, her parents had to break the news in the parking lot that her mom’s cancer had returned worse than before.

Her teammates gave Tara a “Jar of Love” filled with spirit-boosting notes that she keeps by her bed.

“I look at them every day,” Tara says. “My teammates have been my rock when it comes to things like this. They have been so supportive, and whenever I go through stuff, they are always there.”

Tara never takes for granted looking up in the stands and seeing her parents at games. It’s a reassuring sight for nearly every child, but it means even more now.

The chance to provide her mom with even a momentary respite from the cancer is the biggest win Tara can deliver.

“Whatever I am going through in soccer or at school, it is nothing compared to what my mom goes through. She inspires me every day,” Tara says. “I try to tell her that and I hope that she knows how much. I play for myself and for Tennessee and to have fun, but I also play for her and for her to be able to watch me play and do what I love.”

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