Venus Williams: The Disease That Almost Took Away Her Joy

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Famed tennis star Venus Williams became the first American black woman to be ranked #1 in the world. She is credited as changing the women’s game and ushering a new, modern era of power and athleticism on the women’s professional tennis tour.

Her seven Grand Slam singles titles tie her for twelfth on the all-time list, and is more than any other active female player except for her younger sister Serena Williams. Yet, even with all of those accomplishments, Venus had to walk away from her favorite sport for a while due to her health.

In 2011, Venus announced her withdrawal from the U.S. Open tournament after being diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome. The rare autoimmune disease (pronounced SHOW-grins) that forced tennis star and seven-time Grand Slam champion out causes debilitating joint pain, swelling, numbness and fatigue.

Up to four million Americans are living with this chronic condition.

Sjogren’s Disease is a condition in which the body’s immune system attacks its own healthy tissues, particularly the body’s moisture-producing glands. It is one of the most prevalent autoimmune diseases and often strikes at the same time as other autoimmune conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Williams said she has struggled for years with symptoms that she now knows are linked to the condition.

The cause of this autoimmune disorder isn’t yet known, but certain genes raise the risk. In people who are genetically susceptible, some sort of triggering event may spark the disease, such as a bacterial or viral infection.

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Sjogren’s is usually triggered by an infection. The symptoms vary, but usually include dry eyes and a dry, cottony mouth that makes it hard to swallow. Other symptoms include joint pain, swelling or stiffness, swollen salivary glands (particularly the ones behind the jaw and in front of the ears), dry nose or nosebleeds, heartburn, trouble concentrating or remembering, tooth decay, abnormal liver function, numbness or tingling in the hands and feet, extreme fatigue, skin rashes, vaginal dryness, or persistent bronchitis.

“I think I’ve had issues with Sjogren’s for a while. It just wasn’t diagnosed,” Williams said. “I just didn’t have any energy,” Williams said. “And it’s not that you don’t have energy; you just feel beat up. The good news for me is now I know what’s happening,” Williams said, adding that her doctor diagnosed her with exercise-induced asthma four years ago. But it wasn’t until this summer, when she developed more definite symptoms, that an accurate diagnosis was made.

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Deciding to drop out of the U.S. Open wasn’t easy, Williams said.

“… I just felt like, ‘Okay, I could walk out on the court. I’m a tough woman, I’m a tough athlete, I’ve played through a lot of things.’ But what kind of match it would be?” she said. “It was a tough decision, but…