The New Yorker—September 1, 2011
Posted by Reeves Wiedeman
Yesterday, just before 4 P.M., and only fifteen minutes before she was scheduled to walk into Arthur Ashe Stadium for her second-round match, Venus Williams dropped out of the U.S. Open.
No reason was immediately given for the retirement, until a written statement announced the cause: she had been diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome. That clacking noise was the sound of the world’s tennis journalists heading to Wikipedia.
Sjögren’s - named, naturally, for a Nordic ophthalmologist - is an autoimmune disease that involves white blood cells attacking the body’s moisture-producing glands. Dryness ensues: in the eyes, mouth, skin - pretty much everywhere. (The Sjögren’s Foundation publishes “The Moisture Seekers Newsletter.”) Most relevant for Williams, it also leads to joint pain and exhaustion. “You know how it feels when you’re walking around completely parched?” Dr. Robert Spiera, a rheumatologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery who has published a number of papers on the disease, told me. “That’s how it’ll feel all the time.”
Spiera described the disease, which affects around four million people in the U.S., largely women, as a “less dangerous, close cousin of lupus.” Neither condition is beneficial to a professional athlete. If untreated, Spiera said, it would mean playing matches under flu-like fatigue. “Most people can live a normal life,” Spiera said. “But it can really affect the quality of life.”
Sjögren’s often goes undetected for long periods of time, so it’s possible that Venus was already suffering from the disease four years ago. “She may have been searching for an answer for this for a long time,” Spiera said. “It’s not unusual for me to be seeing a nineteen-year old young woman and asking questions like ‘Do you have dry eyes? Dry mouth?’ Then the mom will be sitting there and say, ‘I’ve had that for forty years and just dealt with.’”
Would it even be possible to continue playing with the disease? “I think you could, but it really depends on the flavor of her disease,” Spiera said. “Even the basic issues of dryness and fatigue and achiness, really, at that level of training, will be tough. But once she gets the right management program down, she could do it.” The disease is not curable, but it is controllable. Possible treatments include anti-malarial drugs, but those can take months to work.
This article originally appeared at newyorker.com.
To learn more about Sjogren's Syndrome.