“When I was 15, I had symptoms of endometriosis, but I had never heard of it, didn’t know what it was. I thought that this was just the kind of pain you have when you’re on your period,” Hough, 28, tells PEOPLE. “For years, for I was just thinking that was normal and never really talked about it.”
In 2008, Hough was rushed to the hospital from the Dancing with the Stars set after suffering from severe stomach pains.
“I found out that I had endometriosis and that I needed to get surgery that week,” she says.
Being diagnosed with endometriosis after years of experiencing symptoms left Hough with mixed emotions.
“The first initial thought was a little bit of fear because I didn’t know what it was, especially because it’s not talked about as much as it is today,” she says. “And then also relief because I was able to put a name to the pain, and know there were treatments and I could talk to my doctor and create a plan to help manage the pain.”
Now Hough has teamed up with AbbVie’s “Get in the Know About ME in EndoMEtriosis” campaign to help educate other women who may be experiencing endometriosis symptoms.
“This campaign is about getting in the know and starting a conversation,” she says. “Just having awareness and open conversation about this is so important. I don’t care about being private about this anymore because I really want the women that are going through debilitating pain to benefit from my story or this campaign.”
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While Hough does still experience painful episodes, she doesn’t let it interfere with her daily life.
“I still live a healthy, active life and do the things the I love,” she says.
But when she does need to slow down, she doesn’t hesitate to listen to her body — which she admits wasn’t always easy for her to do.
“That was so hard for me mentally because I have that dancer, athlete mentality of, ‘I cannot quit, I have to keep going,’ ” she says. “I have a tolerance for pain, I’m a tough cookie, so it was really hard for me to take a day off, but I needed it. I have to be kind to my body.”
Now when she does experience an episode, she can rely on her fiancé Brooks Laich to help get her through.
“He’s amazing,” says Hough. “The first time he found out about it was because I was having an episode, and I couldn’t even speak. As soon as it passed, I was able to tell him what it was. Now he knows when I’m having a little episode, and just rubs my back and is there for me and supports me. There’s comfort in knowing that the people around me get it and understand it, so I don’t feel like I have to push through the pain because I don’t want to look weak.”