Danielle Collins - 'It’s really important for me to share my journey with endometriosis' - Players’ Voice
2021 has been a poignant year for Danielle Collins. Despite a strong start to the season, she was suffering from intolerable pain for months on end, leading to her decision in April to take time to have laparoscopic treatment for endometriosis (a condition which sees cells similar to those in the lining of the womb grow in other places).
In the latest edition of Players’ Voice, the WTA star opens up about living with the condition, how surgery helped her turn over a new leaf and her desire to drive more period-talk amongst women.
After a two-month rehabilitation period, she went on to win her first career title in Palermo just weeks later - and a second consecutive one in San Jose - courtesy of a new-found consistency and confidence she credits to her life-changing surgery.
I’ve always had painful periods but I remember a couple of years ago being woken from my sleep and immediately needing to drive to the pharmacy to buy anti-inflammatories just to be able to get through the night. Ever since that incident, I would get really sick around my period with almost flu-like symptoms; fever, chills, throwing up, fainting at times and even having to go to hospital. I would also have a lot of fluid in my stomach which would leave me really bloated and it just got to the point where it was so agonising. The inevitability that this would occur month after month would really shake me a lot mentally because it was really tough knowing I would have to perform physically despite everything.
It was incredibly debilitating - there was one occasion when I physically couldn’t get on a plane to travel to my next tournament as a result of my period starting. Then there were times I was forced to retire from my matches because I would get this stabbing pain from my back down to my foot as my uterus had flipped back and put pressure on the sciatic nerve. It would mean regularly withdrawing from tournaments because my body just wouldn’t allow me to train or compete.
Danielle Collins receives medical attention before retiring to her Adelaide International quarter-final opponent Iga Swiatek
Image credit: Getty Images
I spoke to a lot of doctors who told me that painful periods were normal... Of course, sometimes they are, but sometimes when you’re having the symptoms that I was having, that just wasn’t the case. I was in a very lucky position because I had a really good friend who had previously been diagnosed with endometriosis and we recognised that we shared almost identical symptoms. She was the one who encouraged me to visit a gynaecologist who specialised in the area and that was when the option of surgery was first suggested.
With endometriosis, you can’t categorically diagnose it until you’re examined through laparoscopy because the MRI and imaging won’t always show everything. In the end, it turned out that they found a cyst the size of a tennis ball that wasn’t picked up on a transvaginal ultrasound, which was a little crazy. Having the surgery meant having to put my season on hold, which was pretty nerve-wracking because I was playing so well at the beginning of the year; getting good results in Australia and beating the world No.1. The fact that it was an Olympic year was also in the back of my mind, but I knew deep down that if I continued playing with everything I was dealing with, I never would have been able to get to where I wanted to be with my tennis.
The actual surgery involved tearing through my abdominal wall in four different locations, so a lot of rehab was required to build that strength back up. Returning to actual matchplay was pretty daunting because there’s a lot of repetitive movement involved, especially with serving, and I ended up injuring that area during my third round match against Serena at the French Open.
Danielle Collins hugs Serena Williams at Roland-Garros after falling 6-4 6-4
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I had a second-degree tear in my ab, which meant I had to go home and miss out on all grass court tournaments leading up to Wimbledon. Then I only had a couple of practice days before and I was just really concerned that I would re-injure myself - there were times I’d get to shots and would be there wondering whether I should try and hit them or if it would end up causing more damage. I think as athletes, coming back from any big surgery or injury, overcoming that mental block is one of the hardest challenges and you have to find a way to let go of those thoughts.
I had a bit of a breakthrough a few weeks later in Palermo - incidentally because I had a bit of tendonitis in my elbow so that distracted me from what was going on with my abdominal area. All of a sudden, it was great because I no longer had the pain I’d been feeling in my abs and everything just felt good. I won my first WTA title there and then my second just a week later in San Jose - I was just in this amazing groove! I didn’t have to think too much on court because I was in the zone. Having this sustained stamina and being able to play match after match every day - something I hadn’t been accustomed to for so long - made the surgery seem so much more rewarding.
I had a feeling it would have only made things better but I didn’t quite realise how drastically. It honestly made a day and night difference; not having the worry of my period coming and thinking out all scenarios of how badly it will impact my performance, how I’ll have to adjust my training, how I’ll need to get extra sleep… Just knowing that I can now hang in there physically, and mentally, without having the lingering fear of being stuck with awful symptoms for up to two weeks has really helped me turn over a new leaf and given me so much more confidence moving forward.
Danielle Collins lifts her second title in two weeks after becoming the champion in San Jose
Image credit: Getty Images
Granted, I do have to be on medication for the rest of my life so that the endometriosis tissue doesn’t grow back. I know that sometimes after surgery the tissue can grow back within a few years, but the medication is designed to prevent it returning so hopefully I won’t need to have the same procedure again.
It was really important for me to share my journey because without my friend who was already living with it, I would have really struggled to know what I was dealing with. Being in the world of professional sports and having the fan base I had, I felt this was a perfect opportunity to be a friend to someone else who needs that support. It’s amazing what they can now do through laparoscopic surgeries and medications, and it should give people a lot of confidence that endometriosis is something that can be managed. But, first of all you have to be aware that you have it, which is why building discussion is so vital.
Recently, I’ve noticed it more in the media because a lot of high profile people have been willing to reveal their own struggles; Amy Schumer, for example, has been phenomenal on Instagram and she has such a huge following. But, generally as women, I don’t think we talk about our periods enough; we keep them on down-low so it’s much harder to really pinpoint what’s going on. Even as kids growing up, we don’t receive a ton of information at school and endometriosis certainly wasn’t part of the curriculum! However, we should be able to talk about these things comfortably so we can help each other out.
I had this really amazing moment a couple of months ago in San Jose when a woman came up to me and said that reading my story had pushed her to see a doctor in California, which led to her having surgery. Admittedly, I might not meet every single person who has endometriosis but I hope that by talking about my own experience, there are people just like her who can start finding a solution for what they’re going through.
Approximately one in 10 women suffer from endometriosis - for more information, follow this link.