11/17/2008 at 01:00 AM EST
A professional dancer since the age of 15, Julianne Hough
is used to performing through pain—like the time in Las Vegas when she landed funny and fractured her foot, or when she won a London trophy despite having shingles. "Julianne just doesn't complain," says her mother, Mariann Nelson, 51. "She carries on." Still, after completing her jitterbug with partner Cody Linley on the Oct. 21 episode of Dancing with the Stars
, Hough knew her body had taken all it could stand: Hunched over backstage with abdominal pains so severe "it felt like a knife was being stabbed in me," she recalls, Hough "curled up in a little ball. It was awful."
And serious: Although Hough initially tried to dismiss producers' pleas that she go to the hospital ("I was like, 'It's just a bad stomach ache'"), an ultrasound the next morning not only revealed a cyst on her left ovary, but also massive amounts of scar tissue outside of her uterus—a condition known as endometriosis (for more details, see box)—and that the tissue had spread to her appendix and right hip.
Without immediate surgery, the 20-year-old Hough learned, her appendix could rupture; even more frightening, if left untreated, the endometriosis could leave her infertile. "I know more than anything I want to be a mom and have kids," she says. "That's so important to me." And so even though Hough hated the idea of leaving Linley mid-season, she underwent laparoscopic surgery a week later. "I was so scared," she says. "But I have a very strong threshold for pain, so if it was hurting me, there was something wrong." Linley agrees. "All week I've been scared and praying for her," he says. "But now I'm relieved."
Although Hough had hoped to return to Dancing within a week (Linley will be paired with pro Edyta Sliwinska for now), her doctor says it will be at least two weeks before she can dance again—in part because during the procedure he discovered that the scar tissue had also spread to her bladder and fallopian tubes. As a result, what was supposed to be a 60-minute surgery took nearly two hours, during which the scar tissue was lasered off and Hough's appendix and cyst were removed.
Hough's recovery has also been more painful than she anticipated. "I don't even remember the first day" postsurgery, she says, "and the second day I felt the whole time like I was going to throw up." Fortunately, her boyfriend of five months—country star Chuck Wicks—was there to nurse her ("Our relationship definitely grew this week!" says Hough), along with her mother and her 14-week-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Lexi. "All four of us were on the bed snuggled up, watching Forgetting Sarah Marshall together, with Lexi in between my mom and Chuck," Hough says. "We all shared him! It was so much fun."
It wasn't until day five of her recovery that Hough finally felt well enough to eat solid food. "I've pretty much just been having chicken noodle soup until now. I'm so sick of it," says the star, whose first real meal was sushi. But with her belly still tender from the procedure—she lifts her sweater to reveal three small gauze pads covering her surgical incisions—"I keep saying to Chuck, 'Don't make me laugh—it hurts!'"
One thing Hough is feeling good about is her decision to talk openly about her endometriosis, which she believes she developed at least five years ago, noting that her period always came with "very painful" menstrual cramps. It turns out her mother had surgery for endometriosis 26 years ago, and that her older sister Marabeth, 28, has the condition—which may be hereditary—as well. (Marabeth will have surgery on Nov. 17.) "I didn't know if I wanted everyone to know about this, because it's such a personal thing," Hough admits. "Plus, people are uneducated about it, and I thought they might try to turn it into something it's not."
In only a week, however, Hough says she has gotten "lots of comments from fans thanking me for being honest"—something she plans to continue being, revealing that to try and keep her body from producing more scar tissue or cysts, she will regulate her level of estrogen with low-dose birth control pills.
Despite her health scare, Hough says that—thanks to her relationship with Wicks and the success of her debut country album—"I don't think I've been this happy in a long time." And with her return to Dancing to look forward to, as well as her gig hosting the Country Music Association Awards' Nov. 12 preshow, Hough knows she has plenty of reasons "to be looking on the bright side," as she puts it. "I'm right where I belong, and I'm so grateful to be here."