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Endometriosis is one of the most common gynecologic disorders, and it affects an estimated one in 10 women of reproductive age. Despite being extraordinarily common, there’s still a lack of awareness and urgency of the disease as an important women’s health issue. It’s often an uphill battle for women dealing with endometriosis to either get a timely diagnosis or even have their pain acknowledged by their healthcare physicians.

March is Endometriosis Awareness Month, and Julianne Hough is working to empower women to advocate for their health and open up about their symptoms caused by endometriosis through a campaign called #SpeakENDO. The Emmy-Award winning choreographer, Hough, was diagnosed with endometriosis in 2008, but dealt with the invisible disease since she was 16 years-old. Diagnoses of the disease can take up to six to 10 years, and an estimated 176 million battle with endometriosis on a daily basis.

With #SpeakENDO, Hough’s mission is to help women talk about their endometriosis because women should not have to deal with a debilitating illness in silence.

The campaign, sponsored by AbbVie — a research and development based global biopharmaceutical company — is meant to continue to educate women and others alike about endometriosis. Aside from being difficult to diagnose, endometriosis can also be an isolating disease because of the lack of understanding people have about it. Endometriosis occurs when tissue that acts a lot like the lining of the uterus starts growing outside of it, where it does not belong. It’s different for every woman affected but it’s associated with very painful menstrual cramps, chronic pain in the lower back and pelvis, pain during sex, bleeding or spotting between menstrual periods, and it can cause infertility.

#SpeakENDO is not only a great resource for women trying to make sense of their symptoms, but it’s also a welcoming space for women already diagnosed with endometriosis who are seeking support.

“For the past year, I’ve been speaking out to encourage women to “get in the know” about endometriosis and raise awareness of this chronic and painful disease,” said Hough in a press release about #SpeakENDO. She added:

Hough spoke with HelloGiggles about her #SpeakENDO campaign, her personal mission to empower others dealing with the chronic disease, her newfound love for crystal meditation, and the reason she finally dyed her hair red.

HelloGiggles (HG): Tell me more about your endometriosis journey and what you hope to accomplish alongside the SpeakENDO campaign?

Julianne Hough (JH): I was diagnosed back in 2008, and I have shared my story here and there, but I really wanted to use my platform last year when our campaign Getting in the Know about ME in Endometriosis came about. This year, SpeakEndo is all about learning and educating yourself about what endometriosis is.

It’s important to me because one in 10 women have endometriosis and don’t even realize it. They’re suffering and going through pain to be strong, just thinking that this is what it’s like to be a woman. And it’s not. Yes, of course, we have cramps, but the kind of pain you experience when you have endometriosis, it’s not normal. So I just really wanted to continue my mission of speaking up and starting a conversation so that this isn’t an uncomfortable or awkward topic to discuss. This is a real thing, and women should feel empowered to speak about it.

HG: You were diagnosed in 2008 (at the age of 20), but about how long did you have endometriosis before you were officially diagnosed?

JH: I began to have symptoms at 16. I’m a dancer, I’m a competitor. I didn’t want to complain; I didn’t want to look weak. I thought, “I’m a tough cookie, I can handle this.” And so I just ignored it, even though I was in pain. I always wondered, “Why am I in so much pain and this other person isn’t in as much pain? Do I have a low tolerance for pain?” And then I met my roommate when I first moved out to Los Angeles, and she said she had endometriosis. I was like “What? That sounds way too medical.” But then I would notice her symptoms and I was like, “That’s how I feel,” but I don’t show that and I won’t allow myself to feel that way or show anybody that I feel that way. She told me more about [her endometriosis] but I was 18. I was like, “I don’t want to deal with that, I don’t want to have some disease.” So I just kept going and going.

In 2008, on Dancing with the Stars, I had an episode (I call them episodes), where I was in so much pain that I could not talk. Fortunately, my mom was in town and she was like, “You’re going to figure this out. We’re going together, let’s do this.” And I was like, “It’s fine, mom.” She’s like, “No, you’re not fine!” And so, finally, after a few doctor visits and seeing a lot of doctors, we were able to find out that it was endometriosis.

HG: In an essay, you penned for InStyle, you write about your experience with endometriosis and about having surgery. How did the surgical procedure change or affect your experience with endometriosis?

JH: It’s different for everybody. Obviously, women need to figure out what’s best for them. But in my case, surgery was recommended and the good news is that they were able to do a laparoscopy. They were able to clean it out and of course, it’s something that I live with constantly. My symptoms still come back. I also take medication, it’s what’s recommended to me by my doctor, so it depends on the situation.

HG: Since your diagnoses, how has endometriosis changed the way you live your life? For example, has it affected your dancing career at all?

JH: I would say the quality of my life has changed knowing that I have endometriosis. Before it was always a fight and I was always angry and upset at it. But now that I can put a name to this pain and I know what it is, I have conversations with my doctor about it, I know how to feel more comfortable throughout my day. It doesn’t define me, and I’m in charge of it now, versus the other way around.

I think that’s how I used to feel, and when I would go dance, I would feel like it had power over me. Now, I’m like, “It’s okay, I’m going to take five minutes and I’m just going to nurture myself.” Or, “I’m going to listen to my body, and I can’t do this, and I’m going to have to come back tomorrow,” that kind of mentality. The great thing about that is the people that I work with. My family, my friends, they know that I have endometriosis and they support me. That’s the message: the more you speak up about it, and the more you normalize it, the more people will understand you and support you versus trying to do it on your own.

HG: You’ve spoken a lot about ignoring the pain and ignoring the symptoms because you didn’t want to show weakness. What else would you tell women who are silently dealing with this chronic pain?

JH: Asking for help and sharing your story with #SpeakEndo is a great place to start. There are women that are already sharing their stories, sharing their tips and advice. #SpeakEndo is creating a community of women who either need the support or are already there to support others. I think that’s a good first step to feel safe and understood.

HG: What are some self-care tips you recommend to other women dealing with endometriosis?

JH: If you are able and you feel up to the task, I would try to work out and sweat. Move your body so that the blood flow is real and it’s happening, that sometimes helps. Obviously, the old tricks we always do is get in a hot bath and put some salts in there. I eat lots of avocado and I try to stay away from foods that can cause inflammation. I find that if I’m healthy by what I put in my body, how I work out my body, then I’m able to know that when I’m in pain it’s because of this or that. Instead of being like, “My ‘this’ hurts, I’m feeling bloated but I don’t know if it’s because I ate too much sugar or salt.” So, making sure that I’m healthy on the inside first so that I can take proper care for that.

HG: If not dancing, singing, or acting, what career path would you choose?

JH: I would just constantly be a student. I’m on this spiritual journey right now, and I’m just obsessed with energy and crystals. I’m like, “What is this whole world that has been around forever?” So, I want to learn more about it, and what I’ve learned so far has been so monumental for me that I’m like, “I want to learn everything.”

HG: What kind of crystals are you into? Any particular practices or uses?

JH: I do crystal meditation. I really believe in the Earth’s energy, minerals, and everything, So I have some really Earthy stones and then I also have some very spiritual ones as well, very light ones. When I practice my meditation, I put a healing stone around my sacral area. I always send my love down there instead of hating it, and being angry and being disconnected [because of my endometriosis].

HG: You also recently said goodbye to your blond locks and went full redhead on us, but you’ve mentioned that you’ve been wanting to do that for a long time now. What made you finally take the leap?

JH: I feel really secure and strong in my being and who I am. In the past when I wanted to change my hair I was always like, “People know me as the blond, I should probably stay blond.” But then I was like, “Hang on, why do I care what other people think?” If this is how I feel, I should just do that. It’s like when you break up with a boyfriend, what’s the first thing you usually do? Chop your hair off, cause it’s like “I’m done, that’s an old chapter, I’m starting a new one.” And so, I was starting to feel a certain way and felt like I should do this instead of trying to get something from changing it.

HG: Is there any other color you’d love to explore later down the road?

JH: I want to explore it all! When I was in Footloose, I had this dark hair that had this sort of caramel-y color, and I’d love to do that again. I don’t know, whatever I’m feeling at the time. I think that’s the thing, too, there’s a lot of amazing comments [about my red hair] and then there are a couple people that are like, “Don’t change who you are.” I’m not changing who I am, I’m just expressing a new part of me that either I’ve never felt before or that’s just come in all of a sudden. I want to explore that, I want to feel that.

We all have different versions of who we are and we should explore all of them. We’re not just one person who can fit in this box and you’re programmed this way and have to be the All-American girl next door [with blond hair]. There’s so much more to us, we’re human, we’re complex, there’s a lot. So, do what you want.

You can find the latest news and information about endometriosis through the #SpeakENDO campaign, learn more about women living with endometriosis, and you can also find the necessary resources to learn how to speak to your healthcare provider about endometriosis.