Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is one of the most common autoimmune diseases, affecting roughly 1.3 million Americans. Characterized by joint inflammation, pain, and stiffness, the disease affects three times as many women as men. The discomfort caused by the disease is enough to discourage many people from ever pursuing sports. But a diagnosis of RA doesn’t have to mean you’re relegated to the sidelines forever. We asked three female athletes how they manage (and thrive) with RA, and what they most want you to know about this often-misunderstood disease.
Name and age: Savannah Parrot, 19
Location: Rice University in Houston, TX (hometown: Niwot, CO)
Year of diagnosis: 2019
Career: Student (freshman, majoring in economics)
Sport: Division 1 cheerleader
Favorite non-sport activity: Crocheting and spending time with my friends.
Fueled by: Protein shakes
If I could cheerlead with anyone, I would choose: My best friend, Kennedy. She’s also on Rice’s cheer squad, and I can’t imagine the sport without her. She keeps my spirits high when my RA flares, which helps me to stay positive.
Best tip for managing RA: Be honest with yourself about how you feel and what you can do that day. It’s impossible to do what you need to if you aren’t in tune with your body and you don’t give yourself time to heal.
If I could tell you one thing about RA: I’d tell you to be kind to others who are working through medical realities even if you can’t outwardly see what's going on. Also, remember that their athletic milestones may need temporary adjustment as they work through their condition. Just because people can’t see that I have RA doesn’t mean that I don’t have RA. I was shocked when I started experiencing severe symptoms at 18 years old, because I’d always associated RA with older women, but I learned that RA doesn’t care about age.
How I’ve changed since my diagnosis: Working out used to be a stress relief for me, but when I’m having a flare, exercise itself can be stressful and painful. I’ve had to learn to be patient as I get my regiment of prescriptions just right, and to get used to my new body. Once I do, I can go back to setting aggressive physical goals for myself again.
Name and age: Shelly Spence, 39
Location: Yacolt, WA
Year of diagnosis: 1994
Career: Stay-at-home mom
Sports: A mixture of distance cycling, mountain biking, and mountaineering (I’ve summitted Mount Hood and Mount Shasta)
Favorite non-sport activity: Playing with my son and taking care of our animals—pigs, cats, and soon, chickens!
Fueled by: Diet Pepsi
If I could cycle with anyone, I would choose: My husband, because with our young son we get out together so little these days. Although I would likely ditch him for Michelle Obama, should the opportunity arise!
Best tip for managing RA: Find what works for you and realize it might not look the same as what works for others. Medication has changed my life, helping me exercise without pain. I’ve also found that limiting gluten and chocolate and trying to move every day helps greatly, too. Sometimes that’s just 20 minutes on the treadmill but something is better than nothing.
If I could tell you one thing about RA: I’d tell you to prepare for RA impacting every aspect of your life and relationships. Accepting that fact will help you through.
How I’ve changed since my diagnosis: I feel I have more appreciation for my body now. I try to never take it for granted or take advantage of it, because I know my mobility can be taken away in an instant with a flare or health setback.
Name and age: Rosa Ramirez-Eaton, 44
Location: Portland, OR
Year of diagnosis: 2014
Career: freelance graphic designer
Favorite non-sport activity: Singing!
Fueled by: Well-rounded whole foods with high carbs
If I could do acro-yoga with anyone, I would choose: The Dalai Lama. I think his laughter would be amazing!
Best tip for managing RA: Listen to your body. I used to buy into the idea that I had to push hard all the time to get anywhere, but my biggest setbacks have come from pushing myself too hard. Now, my motto is “less hustle, more flow” and though it may take patience, I can reach my goals with fewer flares and injuries. Relearning how to be active in a way that wouldn’t cause a flare was a long process for me. I made a lot of missteps with food and supplements—I changed my diet drastically and it was more stressful than helpful. Now I listen to what my body is asking for and try to feed it a whole and healthy version.
If I could tell you one thing about RA: It’s a sneaky little bastard. One moment you can be fine, an hour later it’s hard to walk, which can make the person who has it feel like a liar and a flake. Believe that this disease, while invisible, is real and not just a product of an overreacting mind.
How I’ve changed since my diagnosis: The biggest change came from my state of mind. Since my diagnosis I’ve learned what I call my four A’s: Assess, accept, adjust, and advocate. They may sound simple, but they still take a lot of mindfulness and determination.