Sports community rallies around local girl with brain cancer

October 1, 2013

Tara Sankner with Redskins wide receiver Pierre Garcon. (Courtesy of Tammy Sankner)

Tara Sankner hits the softball field and heads for second base, her assigned position for the first inning of a Saturday game with her team, the Galaxy. At 8 years old, she gets to try every position, but she’ll quickly tell you that her favorite is pitcher. She chases down balls that come her way and, while she’s all smiles off the field, she makes sure to wear her game face while in action. Later that inning she’ll step into the batter’s box in her pink helmet, striking out but going down swinging. Nothing to be ashamed of, especially for somebody who hasn’t been able to keep food down for three days.

In March of 2012, Tara suffered a seizure. An MRI at the time showed two spots on her brain assumed to be encephalitis, but in December of that year she began to experience cognitive issues and suffer memory loss. A follow-up MRI turned up three spots in Tara’s brain.

A biopsy taken two months later led to a diagnosis of astrocytoma, a form of brain cancer that is treatable but never goes away. She had just turned 8.

Tara is currently undergoing weekly chemotherapy treatments that leave her sick for days. Tara’s dad, Craig, is a postal worker. Her mom, Tammy, does billing and coding for a medical office. Both work hourly and used their paid time off early in their daughter’s treatment. Tammy now takes unpaid days off to care for Tara.

She has 34 more weeks of scheduled chemotherapy treatments that will hopefully shrink the three tumors in her brain. While she approached the treatments with bravery, the impact of the side effects are showing. During her most recent treatment, she vomited for the first time. Her doctor gave her a new anti-nausea medication that caused an allergic reaction, adding to the discomfort of her treatment.

“It’s really hard to watch her go through this,” Tammy said. “It breaks my heart, and I’m doing all that I can do, but I just want to fix her and make her better. I can’t.”

As her chemotherapy progresses, each week it gets harder for Tara to recover. It’s not easy for a previously active kid. But if there’s one thing that she’ll rally for, it’s sports.

‘So much fight in her’

Earlier this summer, Tara was at Nationals Park for a photo shoot for with The Gold Hope Project, an advocacy group for families affected by childhood cancers. While she watched the Nats take batting practice, Tara was approached by shortstop Ian Desmond, who had seen the group taking photos earlier.

“So, you’re a fighter, huh?” he asked Tara.

A star-struck Tara could only nod and beam as Desmond handed her his batting gloves. In return, Tara gave Desmond a bracelet she made out of rubber bands, which he wore proudly for the rest of the season.

“You’re not going to outdo me,” said a nearby Gio Gonzalez, who went into the clubhouse and came back with a hat, a pink necklace and batting gloves for Tara.

Since that day at Nats Park, others in the local sports community have rallied around Tara. The George Mason softball team invited her to hang out with them in the dugout during a game, and some of the players babysit for Tara so her mother can work more often.

Redskins receiver Pierre Garcon also took an interest, surprising Tara with a visit to her house, where he tried to make one of her now-famous rubber band bracelets.

“It didn’t go so well,” Tara laughed. “His hands are too fat.”

Garcon also donated money for Tara’s treatment through an effort he calls “Touchdowns For Tara.”

“I think it’s really important to be there for the kids,” said Garcon, who was introduced to Tara by Fouad Qreitem, owner of Paisano’s in Northern Virginia. Garcon is a spokesperson for the restaurant. “When I was little, someone did that for me and it gave me hope that I would make it one day. Especially someone like Tara, who has so much fight in her. If I can give her just a little bit of help, a little bit of happiness, then I’m honored to do it.”

Last Sunday, Tara was Garcon’s guest on the Redskins sideline at FedEx Field for pregame warmups. She met some of the players and was given signed footballs, including Garcon’s touchdown ball from the Green Bay game, autographed by the man himself. Underneath his signature he wrote, “TD for Tara.”

Putting on her game face

Back on the softball field, Tara finally gets her turn to pitch, her obvious joy revealing cracks in the game face she works so hard to maintain. But only a few batters into her inning, Tara needs to take a break and her coach and parents determine that she is done for the day. The previous days without food have caught up to her, and dehydration has set in.

“I keep forgetting to save my energy to the end,” she says, frustrated with her own weakness as she returns to the stands to sit on her mother’s lap.

While sidelined physically, it isn’t long before Tara finds the mental energy to chime in on conversations going on around her. When a nearby parent tells Tammy she’s been having discipline problems with her son, Tara, wise beyond her 8 years, tells the mother to take away video games as a disciplinary measure. She recommends a movie to another parent, and gives me the sage advice to make sure my phone is charged before I update to the newest operating system.

“It’ll kill your battery,” she says, examining a chip in her neon orange nail polish.

Tara, who wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up, insists she’ll pay for college with a softball scholarship.  For now, Tara settles for what little field time her body can handle.

“She tries so hard to do the things that she used to do,” Tammy says, stroking her daughter’s thinning blond hair. “And you can’t tell her to slow down, but eventually she has no choice.”

Having the support of athletes like Desmond, Garcon and the George Mason softball players, Tammy says, shows Tara that people care, even ones who seem larger than life.

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