Teen tennis player makes comeback after disease diagnosis

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. -- A year ago, a 15-year-old tennis player struggled to compete. She had extreme fatigue and pain, and no diagnosis yet.

Lillian Oliver had two opponents -- one across the net and one inside her. She'd finish matches for Shawnee Mission Northwest High School last fall.

"But it was just point after point I'd have to lose because I just couldn't breathe enough. I was so tired," said Lillian, now a 16-year-old junior.

Doctors bounced around possibilities including a parasite, mononucleosis and pneumonia. By late fall, her coach with KCUT, a premier program at Overland Park Racquet Club, had to help her off the court.

"She'd collapse. She'd struggle. She would be really upset and really frustrated," Skip Span said.

"You just -- your heart was breaking," said her mother, Sarah Oliver.

Lillian was anemic. Her appearance was ghostlike by December. But what was causing the low blood count?

"When I finally got diagnosed, it was like a relief. I had a reason why I couldn't perform my best," she said.

Lillian has ulcerative colitis, a disease in which ulcers form in the lining of the colon. The anemia resulted from blood loss there. UC affects about a million Americans. It's most frequently diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 35. Lillian's case is called pancolitis, meaning the disease is throughout the colon.

UC is not curable, but it is treatable.

"It's a frustrating disease because you try this treatment and it may work, but then it causes all these other problems," said Sarah Oliver.

Medicine is calming Lillian's UC, but it's irritating her liver. Still, she's playing again, and winning. She took the Sunflower Conference doubles championship with Tamerra Horton, and she'll compete in the regional tournament this weekend.

"Amazing. I honestly, a year ago, I had no idea this was gonna happen. I didn't know if I was gonna play tennis again," she said.

"She's a real tough warrior out there," Span said.

And that should give her the advantage in living with a chronic disease.