Venus Williams, despite life with Sjögren’s syndrome, and teammate Rajeev Ram takes home the silver medal for mixed doubles in tennis in the Olympic games. Though Williams was denied the gold medal by fellow Americans Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Jack Sock, she will always be a hero to the arthritis community for her battle against Sjögren’s syndrome.
Sjögren’s syndrome is an inflammatory autoimmune disease (like arthritis) in which white blood cells—the body’s immune system—attack moisture-producing glands. Most often, this results in dry eyes and mouth, although it can also affect the joints and muscles, and organs including the liver, pancreas, kidneys, lungs, stomach, and brain.
Sjögren’s syndrome affects women much more commonly than men—90% of those diagnosed are women. Though it can occur in people of all ages, it tends to strike around middle age; most commonly, people are diagnosed between the ages of 45 and 55.
Approximately half of those diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome also have another form of arthritis, like lupus, scleroderma, or rheumatoid arthritis—this is called “secondary Sjögren’s syndrome. In the other half of cases, Sjögren’s syndrome appears in people with no other history of arthritis—in this case, the disease is referred to as “primary Sjögren’s syndrome”.
The cause of Sjögren’s syndrome remains unknown, although scientists think that it may be the result of a virus or environmental trigger. Because the disease most often affects women at the end of their childbearing years, it has also been speculated that it may have a hormonal connection. Since Sjögren’s syndrome is an autoimmune disorder, many researchers believe that a combination of these and other factors causes something to go wrong with the immune system, causing the body to attack its own healthy glands and organs.
In 2011, Williams announced to the world she has Sjögren’s syndrome. Like many forms of arthritis, the diagnosis was lengthy and when she did get the diagnosed, it was a relief to finally find out what the problem was and how the disease can be treated. After her diagnosis, Williams admitted there were days where she felt like staying in bed.
In an interview with CNN’s Open Court, she said: “I realized I had to get working, so there were days at the beginning where I did feel like I wanted to stay in bed. I realized I had to get working, so there were days at the beginning where I did feel like I wanted to stay in bed. But I don’t because it makes me anxious, I have to get to work. my motto now is that is all adds up, so if I can only do a little bit this day, it will add up, and it’s better than if I get discouraged and don’t do anything. That’s when I really start sliding downhill.”
To accommodate for the disease, Williams switched to a new exercise routine and went on a vegan diet. In celebration of William’s victory, the Arthritis Olympic Village would like to share a quote from Williams: “I’ve lost and I’ve had to learn — but I’ve never had to lay down the towel, so to speak.”