The immensely talented Julianne Hough has proven that there’s pretty much nothing she can’t do, from dancing and singing to acting on screen and on stage. Perhaps that’s why people were shocked when she came forward several years ago with the news that she suffers from endometriosis, a debilitating and painful gynecologic disorder that affects one in 10 women in the United States.
Hough started noticing sharp shooting pains during her period around age 15, but just assumed it was normal. “At first I just thought, ‘I guess this is what it is to be a woman,’” she tells Glam. It wasn’t until she was 18 and a freshman at college that she first heard about endometriosis. “My roommate had it, and when she told me about it, I was like ‘I’m sorry, what? I can’t even pronounce that. That sounds way too medical.’ I didn’t even want to admit that I had the same symptoms she had.”
Two years later, while she was on the set of Dancing With the Stars, she experienced an “episode,” as she calls them. “Fortunately, my mom was there, and she took me to the emergency room because we didn’t know what it was. There was no name for the pain I was feeling,” she explains. “Eventually I went to see a gynecologist, and I’m really lucky because he was actually the one that said that I had endometriosis, whereas most of the time it takes a woman between six and 10 years to get a proper diagnosis. So, I was pretty lucky there.”
For the last decade, Hough, 30, has been living and coping with her diagnosis. “At first it was pretty scary because you don’t want to have a disease — I think that’s a scary, fearful thing to carry with you,” she says. “As a competitor and entertainer, I never wanted to share that because I didn’t want it to hold me back personally, but I was also worried it would hold me back professionally from other people’s point of view.”
She kept quiet for several years, even keeping her condition from her now-husband, Brooks Laich, who for the longest time would beg her to tell him what was wrong. “I couldn’t even tell him because I couldn’t even speak. He’d be freaking out until it passed, and I’d be like ‘No, no, no, it’s okay,’” she says. “Finally, he said something to me once that actually I will never forget: ‘You know, now that I’m here you don’t have to do this on your own — basically he was saying, ‘I’m here to save you from yourself, so just tell me!’”
Since coming out publicly with her diagnosis, Hough has teamed up with SpeakEndo to share her story while providing comfort and support for other women who may not even know what they’re suffering from. “It’s been amazing to see the response since the first time we started the campaign, and the awareness has just been amazing,” she says. “Now, I get the most incredible, positive direct messages on my social media. To see how the SpeakEndo campaign has been so influential for these women literally warms my heart, and I feel so honored to be able to share my story.”
Below, Hough explains more of what she’s learned about endometriosis.
What exactly is endometriosis?
As Hough explains to us, endometriosis is an estrogen-dependent disease that occurs when the tissue that acts a lot like the lining of your uterus starts growing outside of your uterus, where it doesn’t belong. The three most common symptoms associated with endometriosis all involve pain — painful periods, pelvic pain in between periods, and pain with sex. For Hough, the pain is a sharp stabbing, almost like a contraction. “The pain would jolt me, and it would last anywhere from 30 seconds to a minute,” she says. “I would be in so much pain that I couldn’t even speak — it would be debilitating.”
Because endometriosis is different for every woman and the symptoms can be hard to explain, many women go undiagnosed. In fact, on average, woman suffer for up to 10 years and visit multiple physicians before receiving a proper diagnosis, says Sanjay Agarwal, MD, Director of Fertility Services and Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at UC San Diego Health.
How is endometriosis treated?
Unfortunately, there’s no single answer to this question. Doctors are still trying to figure out what causes endometriosis, how to properly diagnose it, and how to treat it. Some doctors may recommend surgery as a treatment, however even such a drastic measure cannot always guarantee a resolution. Since endometriosis can be different from woman-to-woman, Dr. Agarwal says that treatment must be individualized. “Management ranges from holistic approaches such as changes in diet or acupuncture to medical options to surgery,” he says. “Both medical and surgical treatments for pain related to endometriosis can be effective and current treatment guidelines recommend maximizing medical management for endometriosis to avoid repeat surgeries.”
What’s most important, according to Dr. Agarwal and those at SpeakEndo, is for women to learn about the symptoms, how to address them, and how they should speak about them to their doctor. This way they can work together with their physician to determine an appropriate treatment plan.