Many people living with a stoma find themselves feeling isolated as a result of their condition. Stomas are often placed within the bracket of “hidden illnesses”, referring to conditions that are not immediately obvious to other people, but nevertheless have a real impact on the individual’s life.
This feeling is exacerbated by the fact that stomas are not often discussed in public life, a trend that can make ostomates feel they are dealing with the difficulties of their condition alone. In truth, it is estimated that one in 500 people in the UK are currently living with a stoma - including some high-profile individuals.
As part of our ongoing campaign to improve body positivity and tackle the stigmas that ostomates face, we’re highlighting a few examples of famous people who have experienced life with a stoma - and sharing some of their insights into how they have adjusted to living with the condition.
Looking back through history reveals that many people with globally-recognised profiles have lived with stomas at various points in their lives, including some of the world’s most famous figures. These include:
- Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president of the USA and Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe during World War II
- Fred Astaire, legendary Hollywood dancer, singer and actor
- Red Skelton, American comedy entertainer with a career spanning decades
- Rolf Benirschke, American football star, who was able to continue his NFL career despite having his large intestine removed due to ulcerative colitis
It’s even rumoured that infamous French leader Napoleon Bonaparte had a stoma - and that the reason he held his hand inside his coat in so many portraits was to hide the goat’s bladder he used as a rudimentary colostomy bag!
In more recent times, we’ve seen a number of individuals with stomas making an active effort to use their fame to raise awareness of the condition. One notable example of this is the BBC newsreader and journalist George Alagiah, who has been living with an ileostomy bag following surgery he received as part of his ongoing battle with advanced bowel cancer.
The TV personality has been frank about his experiences with his stoma since, using his profile to broaden the national conversation around this topic. Most notably, during Bowel Cancer Awareness Month in April 2019, he collaborated with Bowel Cancer UK to launch a podcast series called “In Conversation with George Alagiah: A Bowel Cancer UK Podcast”, in which he shared some eye-opening insights into his own story.
Alagiah spoke about the hidden nature of his condition and the fact it made him feel self-conscious about using the disabled toilets, explaining:
I used to find difficult; I had a stoma but I didn't look disabled, and I would be turning the key in a disabled loo in a motorway service station or something. And if there was a queue and somebody obviously disabled [was there], I used to feel guilty and feel like I needed to apologise and explain.
The newsreader also discussed the difficulties faced in overcoming the “embarrassment factor” of dealing with his stoma bag while out and about, admitting that would “load up on Imodium” to slow his digestive process down and head off the problem.
Fortunately, there are signs that public perceptions around stomas and other hidden illnesses are starting to change, meaning those with a similar condition to George Alagiah will no longer need to feel that same sense of self-consciousness.
The story of Bethany Townsend provides a positive example of this, with the former model and make-up artist becoming an inspirational viral sensation back in 2014 after proudly posting holiday snaps in her bikini, with her stoma bags on full display. The pictures were seen millions of times online, and Ms Townsend was able to appear on BBC Midlands Today and ITV’s This Morning to share her message about body positivity for ostomates.
What’s more, Potter Rees Dolan recently conducted a stoma awareness survey of more than 500 people, revealing that 78% of people either “agree” or “strongly agree” that ostomates should not feel worried about having their colostomy, ileostomy or urostomy bag on show while in public.
In addition, 59% of respondents said they would not feel uncomfortable if a friend or colleague had a visible stoma bag, while 79% say they do not believe that only people with obvious physical disabilities should be able to use disabled toilets, with 55% strongly disagreeing with this statement.
This suggests that more and more people across the country are becoming aware of the realities of living with a stoma - and that we’re moving closer to having a world where ostomates are able to feel comfortable with their conditions and accepted by their communities.
Until then, the contributions that high-profile figures like George Alagiah and Bethany Townsend are playing in changing perceptions will continue to be as laudable as they are valuable.