What is a stoma? As stoma is when a small opening is made in the wall of your abdomen and either the bowel or urine tubes are brought to the outside. A colostomy is when the colon is brought out and an ileostomy is when it’s the small bowel. A urostomy is when urine is diverted to the outside but is less common than a colostomy or ileostomy. Faeces or urine is collected in a bag which sits close to the body and can be emptied when needed. Stomas are needed for a variety of reasons including damage to the bowel due to inflammation or cancer. Sometimes they are temporary and are reversed once the bowel has healed and sometimes they are permanent.
I know quite a few people who have had a stoma. Many of these people I met through my work as a GP and some are friends and family. While the reasons for having them have varied, one thing has been a constant. Fear. And fear has meant lots of questions. How do you manage? Will the stoma bag show? Will it burst? And importantly, can you exercise with a stoma?
I knew very little about the last question until a few years ago when I was writing my first book Sorted: The Active Woman’s Guide to Health. I wanted to include women who had overcome challenges to remain active and I came across Sarah Russell. Sarah had to have emergency surgery in 2010 for a perforated bowel due to a condition called diverticulitis. As a rehabilitation, biomechanics and running coach, an international rower and triathlete, Sarah was desperate to return to exercise as soon as she could following her operation. She saw her stoma as a challenge to overcome and found ways to work round it. it wasn’t an easy journey – physically or mentally. Two years after her surgery she became the first person to run the Himalayan 100 – a one hundred mile race over five days in the Indian Himalaya. Sarah says that after that race she felt invincible and it sparked a new passion – to help others who have stomas to get and keep active.
Sarah went on to write The Bowel Cancer Recovery Toolkit. A wonderful guide to getting back on your feet after bowel cancer and all it throws at you. I was honoured to write the foreword for this. I know how vital it is to exercise alongside cancer treatment and as part of recovery. I also know how challenging it is and this book takes you step by step through how to do it safely, including if you have a stoma. I leant it to a dear friend with bowel cancer and a stoma who told me she wished she had had that information from the hospital and that everyone with bowel cancer should read this book.
Lack of information and guidance is a huge problem. Sarah highlights that regaining your abdominal strength is vitally important. But how do you work those abdominal muscles safely when they have been separated during surgery for the stoma to be formed? Are planks and sit ups ok? Can you lift weights or will that make the stoma bulge and cause a hernia? How much can you exert yourself and what do you need to be careful of?
Sarah has taken all her knowledge and experience and created a wonderful new service, The Ostomy Studio. It’s a specialist online Pilates studio for anyone that has had stoma surgery. Using Pilates based exercises it helps participants build strength and confidence. It doesn’t matter whether your stoma is recent or your surgery was years ago, the classes will help you to exercise safely, build up a strong core and give you the knowledge and skills to enjoy being active throughout your life. Because it’s online you can do the classes from your home. You can be confident that you are learning from a highly qualified instructor who really does understand, from personal experience, the challenges you face but also the fact that they can be overcome. You can feel strong and confident again.