In 2008, Julianne Hough was gaining momentum competing in her fourth season of “Dancing With the Stars” — until severe abdominal pains struck after a performance in the fifth week.
"I actually had to stop the show and leave the show to go to the hospital,” Julianne told HealthCentral in a phone interview.
The incident led to surgery and a diagnosis of endometriosis, a condition that affects 1 in 10 women in which the tissue that lines the uterus also grows in areas outside the uterus, sometimes causing severe pain.
"I’m so glad that I [went to the hospital that day] because … I was finally able to put a name to the pain,” Julianne said.
While Julianne has spoken about her diagnosis in the past, this is the first time she has campaigned to raise awareness of endometriosis and discussed her experience in depth with the public. As the spokeswoman for the “Get in the Know About Me in EndoMEtriosis” campaign, Julianne hopes to put a face to the chronic condition and help prevent women from having to endure unnamed, untreated pain for years like she did.
Her symptoms began when she was just 15 years old — much earlier than that day on “Dancing With the Stars.” But she had always assumed the horrible pain she was feeling was just normal period pain, even when it persisted throughout the month. As she grew older and began an athletic career in the spotlight, she continued to struggle with chronic pelvic pain.
“I didn’t realize it was something more than just ‘being a woman,’” Julianne said. “As the symptoms were happening, I thought, ‘I’ve just gotta push through the pain and deal with it because that’s what it is being a woman.”
Aside from painful periods, symptoms of endometriosis can also include heavy periods, general pelvic pain, pain during sex, and infertility, said Rebecca Brightman, M.D., F.A.C.O.G, an OB-GYN practicing in New York City.
It was actually Julianne’s mother who finally convinced her to go to the hospital that day in 2008 when her symptoms were at their worst, Julianne said. Julianne’s diagnosis shed new light on her mother’s own experiences with pain; not too long after, her mother was diagnosed with endometriosis, too.“
The fact that [my mom] was dealing with that pain for that many years—it was heartbreaking to know that my mom was going through that and didn’t have anybody to talk to because it was such a stigma to talk about women’s health issues, and it was uncomfortable or awkward,” Julianne told HealthCentral.
For Julianne, encouraging discussion about women’s health issues is a matter of “women empowering women,” she said.
Just talking about [endometriosis] in general just opens up the conversation, whether it’s online with the hashtag #MeinEndo or just with your friends and family,” she said.
Like Julianne and her mother, women often endure the pain of endometriosis for years before diagnosis. Creating awareness of the condition can encourage women to raise concerns to their health care providers sooner, Dr. Brightman said.
“It’s an underrecognized situation in women,” Dr. Brightman said. “Unfortunately, because of the vague symptoms that are often chalked up to ‘just being a woman,’ there’s frequently a delay in diagnosis leading up to approximately 6-10 years before someone is diagnosed and then appropriately treated.
Learn more about endometriosis and Julianne’s campaign at meinendo.com.
Lara is a digital editor for HealthCentral. She is the site’s staff writer, Sexual Health editor, and email newsletter chief. Previously, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs, where she became obsessed with learning about women’s health. She also freelances as a news writer/editor at WTOP.com. Connect with her on Twitter @laradesanto.