Swimming with a colostomy
EXTRA,  FEATURES,  February 2024,  Readers' Swims

Celebrating different abilities

Emma Jane Lancaster hasn’t let surgeries, medical conditions and a colostomy stop her swimming

An ostomy is an artificial opening in the body, created through surgery. There are three different types of ostomies: a colostomy (which I have), which is usually on the left hand side of the body and comes from the large intestine; an ileostomy, which is usually on the right hand side of the body and comes from the small intestine; and a urostomy, which is usually on the right hand side of the body and is when the bladder has been removed or bypassed. A urostomy is usually permanent, whereas a colostomy or ileostomy can be temporary or permanent. There are many different reasons that a person may have a stoma. Cancer is frequently one of these reasons, but conditions like Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis are others too.

My grandfather had an ileostomy due to bowel cancer, so it was something I was familiar with. Bowel issues were always a part of my life, but it wasn’t ever spoken about. I think my gut motility was pretty poor in my teenage years in particular. The problems continued until I was introduced to laxatives about 13 years ago. These laxatives were incredibly painful, but meant that I didn’t have weeks without going to the toilet, and wasn’t on the toilet for hours at a time. The downside was the pain – but also that I didn’t know when the laxatives would take effect. This made it incredibly difficult planning early morning swims.

Finding a solution

After bladder prolapse surgery in December 2021 I had more issues and I was in so, so much pain. I decided I’d had enough. I spoke to one of my wonderful friends (who has an ileostomy) about having ‘a bag for life’, as he calls it! I then spoke to my gynaecologist who referred me to my general surgeon. I’m quite headstrong so I’d already spoken to the stoma nurses to get my head around it all, in case it was an option. I was referred for something called a ‘dynamic MRI’. The results showed that it was likely I have something called Pelvic Floor Disorder and that the best option was a colostomy.

Swimming with a colostomy

Coming round from the surgery I cried with relief that over 20 years of pain were hopefully at an end. I was in hospital for a week – mostly to adjust, but also because I can’t necessarily be trusted not to overdo things! Adjusting took about six weeks after I’d discovered which stoma bags and appliances I was best suited to. I now have a routine of changing my bag after my 6.45am sea swim and shower every morning – it takes me less than five minutes in total. I think mentally I adjusted very quickly because I was thrilled to be out of pain, even though I was recovering from major surgery!

Embraced by the sea

I had 24 days after my surgery before I was allowed back in the sea. I’ve been sea swimming daily (except when I’ve been recovering from surgeries) for nearly four years now. It was a long 24 days, but getting back in was amazing! For a week it was only for a ‘bob and gob’, before I did the Swimarathon with the Guernsey Swim Adventures the following Saturday and then a distance sea swim on the Sunday with the Mental Tentacles. These are two of the groups that I swim with regularly and they are fantastic fun! Everyone is very good about me dislocating various body parts and having surgeries, and I do get checked up on. I’m stubborn enough that I keep going regardless of pain, but it’s a lovely feeling knowing that people care.

Swimming with a colostomy

Last year I swam over 3km plenty of times and I have seen some incredible things (including a bluefin tuna jumping out of the water and scaring me half to death!). I do a mile a day if I have the time. However, the things I’m most proud of are that I managed to swim from Petit Bot around to the Bathing Pools in July (10.5km), and then from Guernsey to Sark in August (12km). I still have frequent IBD flares, a problematic coccyx, a shoulder that tends to sublux and an ankle that needs more surgery due to dislocations. These swims were also less than a year after having my colostomy surgery.

Having an ostomy hasn’t stopped me from swimming at all, in fact the swimming is incredibly beneficial. Not only is it a low impact sport, but it keeps my core strong. All bags are waterproof – for obvious reasons! As long as there is a good seal on the skin no water can get in and no waste can get out (so pool swimming is also totally safe). The endorphins released during sea swimming also keep me mentally healthy.

Sky’s the limit

There are 205,000 of us living with a stoma in the UK – that’s 1 in every 335. Some people seem to feel the stigma, but this isn’t something I’ve experienced. I’m not saying that everyone who has an ostomy, or is differently abled, should be able to run or swim a marathon, or live their life as they did previously. In some cases this is genuinely impossible.

Swimming with a colostomy

But as I think I prove, if the person is fit enough already and doesn’t have any other conditions, then having an ostomy is not the end of the road. For some people, it is just the beginning. All you have to do is look at the incredible, differently-abled swimmers who have broken records recently: Sophie Etheridge who broke the record for the longest ever English Channel crossing, Jonty Warneken who was the first para/amputee solo swimmer to cross the North Channel and Gill Castle, who was the first ever ostomate to swim the English Channel. Different abilities need to be celebrated!

Read more inspiring readers’ swim stories.

Stay up to date with The Dip, our free weekly outdoor swimming newsletter.

Outdoor Swimmer is the magazine for outdoor swimmers by outdoor swimmers. We write about fabulous wild swimming locations, amazing swim challenges, swim training advice and swimming gear reviews.