Dannii’s Story – Achalasia
It is estimated that 1 in 100,000 new patients each year are affected by achalasia.
September each year is achalasia awareness month. This is Dannii's story.
Tell us a bit about yourself
“My name is Dannii and I’m 35 years old. I’m a secondary school PE and science teacher. I’m a mum to Florence and Ottilie, who I share with my husband Simon. Exercise has been a huge part of my life since I could walk. I started kicking a ball when I was 4 and had a career in football from the age of 16.”
When did you notice your first symptoms?
“When I was 16, I won a scholarship to the FA National England player development centre. It was an incredible experience.
I was 18 years old when I noticed my first symptoms. I tried swallowing rice but noticed it was stuck in my throat. I also experienced reflux and pains in my chest. It was a gradual show of symptoms over a couple of months.
I chose to ignore these symptoms as I didn’t want to be unfit for selection. Eventually I did go to the England FA doctor. When they told me it was probably reflux, I sighed with relief.”
How were the next couple of years?
“My symptoms continued. I went to my GP, but I was repeatedly told it was reflux. I was working as a teaching assistant, as well as playing for Birmingham. It took me over an hour to finish a meal. I was losing weight and struggling to stay hydrated.
I came in from work one day, took a sip of water and my throat locked. It went into a spasm. I couldn’t breathe. In my head I was choking. I was by myself and the only thing I could do was to throw up the water. I couldn’t hide it anymore. My doctor finally referred me that week.”
How long did it take for you to be diagnosed?
“It took a full year after being referred to get my achalasia diagnosis. My consultant was brilliant. He never gave up or made me feel like what I was experiencing wasn’t real.
I struggled in the early days to describe my symptoms. I remember the turning point being when I described it as a ‘functional problem.’ My food wasn’t going into my stomach. Your throat should contract, but mine isn’t. He decided to send me for a barium swallow test, where I was finally diagnosed with achalasia.”
How did you feel after your diagnosis?
“I finally had a diagnosis and a plan to help improve my symptoms. I was going to have the heller myotomy surgery, with the aim to improve my swallowing. I felt like there was a light at the end of the tunnel – this operation could improve my quality of life! I was also scared; I’d never heard of achalasia before. My consultant told me this condition is rare, and there is no cure.
I was diagnosed in October, and my surgery wasn’t until January. I joked with my consultant that this was a good thing as I didn’t want the surgery interrupting my Christmas dinner, he joked back that I couldn’t have it any way as I can’t swallow it!
The period between diagnosis and my operation was tough. I was still losing weight and I was put on a liquid diet. I’d hide from colleagues at lunchtime, but I was terrified to eat on my own too. I feared something would get stuck again. I stopped eating out through fear of embarrassment.
I was featuring a lot for England’s under 23’s team. I was so close to being a part of the England squad. I felt this condition was going to take this all away from me.”
How did your surgery go?
“I had my operation on the 25th January 2010. I remember this as it’s also Simon’s birthday. It was a tough recovery. Two weeks after my operation I saw an advert of a puppy that needed rehoming, called Nellie. That night we brought Nellie home. As I was still recovering Simon looked after Nellie, who cried all night! He still likes to bring this up, since he’d never had a dog before. Unfortunately, Nellie passed away earlier this year. She provided me with so much strength and focus in times of real struggle and I will always be grateful for the support she provided without even knowing.
I didn’t want achalasia to affect my football career any longer. I was back training 7 weeks after my operation. I signed for Chelsea that March. My first game was in April, which happened to be the first game of the FA Women’s super league. I was so proud of myself.
Sadly, it became apparent over the next 6 months that I couldn’t continue at this level of football. I was struggling to hydrate, and I couldn’t eat the high carb diet. I decided to retire. I felt bitter, I felt like achalasia had taken away my love of football.”
How is your life now?
“I view my life as before achalasia and now. I have a really good quality of life now in comparison to before my operation. Your digestion is so integral to your overall well-being and health. It’s often overlooked by those who don’t suffer from a digestive condition.
Achalasia causes me anxiety, and running is my outlet. My stresses disappear when I run. It proves to me I’m still strong and healthy. I’m able to run – how lucky am I?
I haven’t completely left football behind. Every week we have a staff 5-a-side football night, which I love!”
Why are you sharing your story?
“I remember after my operation I googled achalasia for the first time and found an online forum. I was so overcome with emotion reading other people’s experiences, for the first time I wasn’t alone. It was so empowering.
If one person reads this story and feels the same, I’ll be happy. It’s important for people to know it’s not just them. A problem shared is a problem halved.”