Julianne Hough dealt with severe pain for years before finding out she had endometriosis. The actress, dancer, and singer was finally diagnosed with the reproductive health condition after pelvic pain sent her to the hospital following a Dancing with the Stars performance in 2008.
Although Hough, then 20, decided to disclose her diagnosis to fans, she shied away from talking about it too much for fear of making it a centerpiece of her life. “I didn’t want it to define who I was or have it be something that held me back personally, in my relationships, or in my work,” Hough tells SELF.
Today, Hough, now 30, is an outspoken advocate for the endometriosis community. Over the years she’s discussed her challenges with the disease, traditionally understood to occur when the endometrial tissue lining the uterus starts growing on other organs, causing inflammation that prompts pain. (Another theory is that these growths are made of a different type of tissue altogether, as SELF previously reported.)
A few other health details Hough shared with the press in the past: the fact that she underwent laparoscopic surgery to remove scar tissue on her reproductive organs; and the fact that she hid the condition from her now-husband, Brooks Laich, because she thought she could handle it on her own. (She ended up sharing her diagnosis with him after a particularly painful episode.)
How did Hough go from keeping her endometriosis something of a secret to becoming a spokeswoman for this often agonizingly painful health issue? As a partner with the endometriosis resource website SpeakENDO.com, Hough talked to SELF about her journey.
SELF: You’ve been open about having endometriosis for a long time, but you’ve seemed even more passionate about speaking out more recently. Why is that?
Hough: Knowledge is power. Honestly, in the last couple years, I’ve seen how many people really don’t know anything about endometriosis. I didn’t have any knowledge about the disease until I got it.
That’s why it was important for me to use my platform and my own story to let other women know that they’re definitely not alone. The more we talk about it, the more we’re empowered by it rather than it being in control of us. The more I started to know and acknowledge all of me, the more I realized, ‘Wow I really suppressed that part of me.’ It’s hurting me, but it’s also hurting all these other people that could have more knowledge about it if I started to use my voice. That’s why SpeakENDO.com and speaking about it in general is so great for women.
SELF: Do you feel empowered by knowing more about endometriosis and about yourself? Did it help spur that self-discovery?
Hough: I’m such a competitor by nature—I go above and beyond, and I don’t ever want to complain. I was just doing that for a long time and completely ignoring my feelings, my body, everything. My journey has been a lot of self-care and self-love—that path has been about connecting to myself.
Right now it’s [becoming more about], How can I connect to others? I’m really, really passionate about women and their power. I don’t know if you feel it, but I feel it—there’s a cultural shift and a movement happening. We’re stepping into [our power] right now…dropping into who we really are.
SELF: I’m with you on that. So, endometriosis is not something you take a pill for or even get a surgery for and it’s gone. Do you ever find the chronic aspect of endometriosis—the waxing and waning of symptoms—frustrating or exhausting?
Hough: Yeah, for sure. My approach to that is not ignoring and suppressing it—being like, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine!’—but actually just owning it and embracing it. For me, what it’s actually done is taught me how to have self-care.
Instead of ‘Ugh, I wish I didn’t have this, and I’m in so much pain,’ [I say], ‘OK, what can I do to have a better life?’
Or, talking about painful sex, I ask, ‘What else can I do to have a great sex life?’ Maybe it can be through [other kinds of] intimacy. So, it’s helped me explore more of what’s possible versus being limited by it. It’s actually given me more of a scope of what is out there.
SELF: And maybe not just what’s out there, but what’s ‘in there’—how strong you can be as a person. Has having endometriosis made you learn to be more of an advocate for yourself at the doctor’s office or even outside of that, like with work?
Yes, exactly. [At work] is probably where I’ve seen it the most. A few years ago, I would just be like, ‘I’m having an episode, but they’re just going to think it’s period pains, and every woman has that.’ I just didn't say anything. Now I’m like, ‘So, I have endometriosis—I’m not dying, it’s OK—but I have this. I’m just letting you know that sometimes, when I have an episode, I might need to take some time.’ Instead of being afraid of it, I just lay it out on the table: This is what is.
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.