Professional Soccer Player Describes Life with Autoimmune Diseases

Shannon Boxx, a professional women’s soccer player, secretly battled two autoimmune diseases while winning medals across the globe

Playing Professionally with Invisible Illnesses

In 2012, Shannon Boxx, a professional soccer player on the US national women’s team, was at the top of her career. She had earned medals at three World Cup games and two Olympic gold medals. However, unbeknownst to her teammates and coaches, she had actually been diagnosed with a debilitating autoimmune disease a decade prior, and another autoimmune disease just four years ago.

Boxx, now 42, was first diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome in 2002, which causes widespread dryness, joint pain and fatigue, among other symptoms. She was later diagnosed in 2008 with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), or simply, lupus, which also causes a myriad of symptoms, including joint pain, muscle pain, fatigue, skin rashes, brain fog and major organ involvement.

Treatment for Lupus and Sjogren’s Symptoms

When interviewed by the publication The Undefeated, Boxx said that she manages her lupus flares by wearing compression pants, which help with the joint pain that she experiences in her knees. She also takes hydroxychloroquine, also known as Plaquenil, an anti-malarial drug that helps her to manage the joint pain associated with both of her autoimmune conditions. Boxx describes her joint pain as severe; “There were times, even when I was playing on the national team, I was having teammates cut my steak for me because it hurt so much on my wrist to actually hold onto a fork or a knife.”

Fatigue and brain fog are other symptoms that Boxx battles daily. “I used to be able to run forever, and now I can barely walk sometimes for a mile or two. And that’s pretty heartbreaking,” she confessed. Boxx has children, and she wants to be able to run around with her kids for as long as possible. “To know that there’s days that I can’t do it, it puts you in a really bad place, mentally,” she said. When asked about how the fatigue feels, she commented, “It is this feeling of a weight just sitting on you and just even to lift your head off the pillow takes so much effort and your eyes don’t want to open. When I was playing it felt like my feet were in quicksand.”

Autoimmune Disease Triggers

Boxx explained that one of the main triggers for her autoimmune flares is stress. Now that the coronavirus is grappling the world, the global pandemic has added another layer of anxiety to the mix, especially given that she is immunocompromised. As a result, the professional athlete is following local shelter-in-place orders, wearing masks diligently and ensuring to frequently wash her hands and stay six feet apart from others.

Another source of anxiety is the fact that hydroxychloroquine, the medication that she takes, has become more scarce as a result of it being explored for its potential use in treating COVID-19. “It makes me sad that there are a lot of people that are suffering or even worse because they now can’t get the medication that they need,” she said.

Boxx believes another potential source of her flares is over-exposure to the sun, though thankfully, most days are overcast in her home of Portland, Oregon in the Pacific Northwest. She also frequently experiences the so-called ‘butterfly rash‘ that is a hallmark of lupus, and can arise following exposure to sunlight.

Two other factors that must be considered in the pathogenesis of autoimmune disease are sex and race. According to the Sjogren’s Foundation, nine out of 10 Sjogren’s patients are women; similarly, the US National Library of Medicine states that nine out of 10 lupus patients are women. Lupus is also three times more likely to occur in African American women than white women. Boxx, for her part, is a biracial woman, so her gender and ethnic background may have played a part in developing autoimmune diseases.

Moving Forward with Chronic Illness

Shannon Boxx plays in a friendly soccer match against Brazil’s women’s team.

Though living with two different autoimmune conditions is undeniably challenging, Shannon Boxx is determined to live her best life. She retired from playing professional soccer in 2015, and is focusing on taking care of her own health, and spending time with her husband and kids. Though she has retired from professional soccer, she enjoys playing non-competitive games with other international teams and coaching kids’ soccer teams.

Boxx is also an advocate for those living with chronic illnesses, and actively participates in awareness campaigns for the Lupus Foundation of America. Commenting on her conditions, she said, “I’ve been able to deal with it, and still do something that I love…[lupus] has shown me that I can’t take [soccer] for granted, because that’s something that I love to do. If anything it’s given me perspective.”

Women and Autoimmune Disease: Combating Gender Bias in Medical Treatment

A female jogger runs outside to exercise good health for autoimmune disease

Happy International Women’s Day! In honor of this day, I wanted to share a blog post specifically about women and autoimmune disease.

Women Suffer from Autoimmunity More than Men

According to the American Autoimmune and Related Diseases Association (AARDA) almost all autoimmune diseases are more prevalent in women than in men. For example, with the autoimmune condition systemic lupus erythmatosus (SLE), 9 out of 10 patients are women. Why is this, and what unique challenges does being a women present in the diagnosis and treatment of autoimmune disease?

Women Are More Vulnerable to Autoimmune Disease

According to a groundbreaking study from the University of Gothenberg, due to hormonal influences, women are more vulnerable to autoimmune diseases than men. The study found that the male sex hormone testosterone provides protection against autoimmune disease. Since men have ten times more testosterone than women, they have more protection from rogue immune cells than women.

The study explains that testosterone provides protection against autoimmune disease by reducing the quantity of B cells in the body. B cells are a type of lymphocyte (immune cell) that releases harmful antibodies. Testosterone provides protection against B cells by suppressing BAFF, a protein that makes B cells more viable. When testosterone is eliminated, the result is more BAFF, and thereby more surviving B cells in the spleen.

This is why testosterone is critical to the prevention of autoimmune disease, and why women are more vulnerable to autoimmunity due to having less of this hormone.

Challenges Women Face in Diagnosis and Treatment of Autoimmune Disease

Women face an uphill battle when it comes to the diagnosis and treatment of autoimmune disease. According to Penney Cowan, Chief Executive of the American Chronic Pain Association, physicians tend to dismiss women’s pain more than they do men’s. Women are often told that the pain is ‘all in their head’, or, in the case of gender-specific conditions, such as endometriosis, that the pain is just a ‘normal part’ of being a woman. Other research has found that physicians are more likely to attribute women’s pain to psychosocial causes, like stress or family issues, while attributing men’s pain to an underlying physical problem. Medical professionals also order more lab tests for male patients presenting similar symptoms as compared to female patients.

Diane Talbert, an African-American woman from Virginia, spoke to over 10 physicians for over a decade about the pain she suffers from psoriasis, an autoimmune condition of the skin, that she’s had since childhood. However, her complaints were dismissed as psychological or attributed to menopause. It wasn’t until she was in so much pain that she could no longer lift her arms above her head, that a Rheumatologist diagnosed her with Psoriatic Arthritis, a painful autoimmune disease that affects about 15% of patients with Psoriasis.

A Harvard Medical Review piece titled Women in Pain: Disparities in Experience and Treatment further explored the frustrations women experience when trying to get a diagnosis and treatment. The author cites evidence that while 70% of chronic pain sufferers are women, 80% of all pain studies are conducted on male mice or men! Since women also experience different symptoms than men, such as in the case of heart attacks, physicians are also less likely to recognize the condition in women, and may prematurely discharge a woman who has just suffered a heart attack, since she’s not presenting the symptoms a man normally would.

The author also points out that because autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and other connective tissue conditions are chronic in nature, they’re not likely to just ‘go away’ on their own, and require active treatment to prevent further damage to one’s tissues. That’s why, if a woman doesn’t get a diagnosis due to gender bias, the consequences could be dire to her health.

Combating Gender Bias in Medical Treatment

So, what can we as women do in order to combat gender bias that medical professionals have against us? As I discuss in the blog post When Your Doctor Doesn’t Believe You, the key to ensuring you get the medical treatment you need is to stand up for yourself and be as assertive as possible. Another tip that I’ve found over the years is to bring someone else with you to your appointments that can be your advocate – someone who can attest to the fact that you’re no longer able to do the things you used to due to your medical issues. While it’s unfortunate that we as women have to rely on others to advocate for us, sometimes this is the anecdotal ‘evidence’ that a physician needs to hear in order to take our plight seriously. If your doctor still doesn’t budge, then find a new provider who will actually help you get the treatment you need and deserve.

Do you believe that you’ve experienced a medical bias when getting a diagnosis or treatment for your autoimmune condition? Please share your experience by commenting below!

Other related articles: