Why these Northern Ireland men are thankful to Brian Kennedy for breaking colostomy taboo
After Brian Kennedy opened up about the outcome of recent cancer surgery, Leona O’Neill speaks to two men living with similar conditions who are inspired by the singer’s brave stance.
Belfast singer Brian Kennedy won the admiration of thousands of viewers with his taboo-breaking interview on BBC NI's Nolan Live show about his recent surgery.
The 52-year-old singer, who was diagnosed with rectal cancer in 2016, had major nine-hour surgery last October and took the brave step of showing his colostomy and urostomy bags live on TV.
In a frank - and at times disarmingly humorous - chat with Nolan, the singer, who grew up on the Falls Road, referred to the bags as "the twins" and said that he wanted to take the "stigma from stoma". Describing them as "the legacy of his cancer" following the "pelvic excavation" surgery, Brian admitted that when he was first told what sort of op he would need, he thought "I'm too young to have that".
Subsequently, however, he had discovered 40,000 people on the island of Ireland had colostomy bags.
Revealing that he would continue to receive regular chemotherapy until June, he also stressed that he was getting on with life - and enjoying it. "I'm doing good, the worst is over."
Among those who praised Brian for his honesty and courage were those living with similar conditions.
Here, we talk to two men from Northern Ireland who also have colostomy bags and felt moved to thank the hitmaker for going a long way in breaking the silence around the condition.
'My colostomy saved me... it has certainly changed my life, but not for the worse'
Firefighter Chris Morrison had his colostomy bag fitted three years ago after a non-cancerous tumour was discovered in his rectum. The 49-year-old lives in Londonderry with his wife Martina and their children Aine (22), Niamh (20) and 13-year-old Cormac.
He says that when he was told he would have to have a permanent colostomy bag fitted, his first thought was whether he would ever be able to work again.
"It was April 2016 when I started noticing some symptoms," he says. "I noticed a bit of bleeding and a lump when I went to the toilet. In typical man fashion, I buried my head in the sand ... and the symptoms went on. Then, my wife and I went on a hotel break and I was in the swimming pool and she noticed that I had lost of lot of weight and said I needed to go to the doctor.
"I went to the doctor and went away with a referral to the haemorrhoids clinic. Things continued on and the lump kept getting bigger and bigger. I was at work one day in October and it got to the evening and I had to say to my boss that I had to go home, I was sick. It had been building up for weeks. I was so tired and when I was climbing stairs my heart was pumping on overdrive.
"The next morning I got another appointment and my wife came along with me. She slid a photograph of me across the table to the doctor from six months ago which showed the huge amount of weight I had lost. I got blood tests and I was sent straight to Altnagelvin Hospital, where I spent nine days and that is where they discovered I had a large rectal tumour. Thankfully it wasn't cancerous.
"I had a conversation with the consultant and the issue of having a colostomy was brought up. It was an absolute shock. I had put in 23 years in the fire service and one of my first questions was 'Would I be able to resume my career?'
"And the moment he said that he couldn't see a problem with that, it was like a switch-on moment for me. I felt that I could do this okay. I had my operation to remove the rectum and the lower part of the colon on November 14. And that left me with a permanent colostomy."
Chris then had to get himself back on his feet and to aid him in his recovery, he set himself an important goal.
"I had a goal in my sight and that was to get back on a fire engine within 12 months of the operation," he says. "I missed it by only a month, but that is because I had to do a few training courses to catch up. But my eyes were firmly focused on that and I think that is what saw me through.
"It hasn't impeded my work though I do have to be careful. There is always an extra danger that you can develop a hernia. I have support belts and special underwear that I do have to wear and obviously you have to do proper lifting techniques. But it's not an impediment at all and my employers have been great.
"It doesn't stop me doing anything, in fact I'm doing a three-day charity trek across the Sahara in November to raise money for a firefighters' charity." He adds with a smile: "I've decided to really test my stoma and see if sand really does get everywhere."
Welcoming Brian Kennedy's honesty about having stoma, Chris says that he, too, wants to raise awareness and help others understand that a colostomy bag is not an "end-of-the-world" scenario. "There are so many people out there living with ostomies," he says.
"Bodily functions are a big taboo with people. It doesn't help when you see dramas on television which depict people getting colostomies as being an end-of-the-world scenario. It's up to people like me and other people who have actual experience of it to get rid of that stigma.
"Brian Kennedy was brilliant. To stand up on television and say 'look, here they are' for the world to see was absolutely fantastic. It was something that we are constantly trying to do. To have a celebrity like Brian come out and say 'I have these ostomies, it's not the end of the world, it saved my life' is fantastic.
"And my colostomy saved my life. Yes, there are times you can get down about it, but at the end of the day I wouldn't be here without it. It has opened up a whole new world to me, too, getting to know people that I never met before but have become good friends with. It has certainly changed my life, but not for the worst.
"When I look back at myself in 2016, I was a week away from having a massive heart attack. My blood levels were half of what they should have been. It was a scary time for me and my family.
"So like Brian, my message is it's not the end of the world to have an ostomy. It's just a different way that we do a bodily function. I am two-and-a-half years down the line now and it's all just second nature to me. It becomes normal."
Chris, along with Colostomy UK, is organising Northern Ireland's first ostomy-only swimming session in Derry on April 8. It can be booked directly by contacting Chris on firstname.lastname@example.org
'You can make peace with it and make a real joke out of it... that's my approach'
Fermanagh man David Topping has been living with a colostomy bag for two years. The 42-year-old civil servant now lives in Derry with his wife Tamlynne and their two children, Corey (6) and Amelia (2). He almost died in his teens during a serious colitis flare up. Over 20 years later he says he copes with his condition with humour.
"When I was in my teens I had come close to death after several bouts of colitis," he says. "They had been put down to acute diarrhoea and one of them hospitalised me when I was around 16 years old. During the flare up I nearly died. I had lost so much weight and fluid that my parents were told to expect the worst.
"I had to leave university after another flare up and I came back home to live. When I was around 19 years old I was in work one day, went to the toilet and discovered a lot of blood. My doctor sent me to the hospital and I was properly diagnosed with colitis for the first time, which shot my chances of contracting bowel cancer up by 30%. After 10 years, that goes up to 50%.
"I was given treatments including steroids, immuno-suppressants and biologic drugs but they failed to keep it in remission.
"Then, in April 2017, I had camera tests done and they found high grade dysplasia - basically pre-cancerous cells - in healthy cells and inflamed areas. A month later I was advised that surgery to remove my large intestine and rectum and ileostomy was the only way forward. I had surgery in July 2017. It was both keyhole and open surgery and it lasted for nine hours.
"Afterwards I had quite a few complications, my wounds became infected and within a week I was pumped full of antibiotics. I was in critical care for five days.
"My colostomy basically saved my life. Three weeks after the surgery I was told that tests had showed I had a stage one bowel cancer growing but that it had been removed in the surgery."
David says he feels that being frank and honest, with a smattering of humour, allows him to cope with the condition. "I would be very open about it," he says. "We were always open with family and friends. They knew what I was going through and I joke about it.
"I have always dealt with things in the same way, and that is with a certain level of humour. I think the main reason for that is that it helps me deal with some of the darker days.
"When I'm asked in Tesco if I need a bag for life, I always tell the girl I already have one, that I'm sorted.
"I have a few covers for my bag. I have a Christmas tree one for the festive season and a 'my other bag is a Gucci one', so people find those funny."
David admits, though, that there are times when he has depressed about having to wear a colostomy bag.
"Of course, there are times when you do get frustrated with it and there are times when you could curse it up and down. There are times when you can feel quite down about it. It took me nearly 17 months to recover from the surgery. And what I found was that in those dark times all sorts of thoughts go through your head.
"But the thing I always try to remember is that if I hadn't have had the surgery, that everyone else would be cracking jokes and not me, because I wouldn't be here, I'd be six feet under.
"You can either let it bring you down or you can make peace with it, make a real joke out of it and I have decided to take the latter approach.
"And that has always been my ethos - if I can get through this and talk about it, even through the worst of it, even through the sores and ulcers and the leaky bags, then it will be okay."
David says that Brian Kennedy speaking out about his own health condition has gone a long way towards smashing the taboo over colostomies in Northern Ireland in particular.
"I think Brian is totally inspirational," he says. "I took a lot of heart from that. Over here it's a worse situation in terms of taboo than across the water. Northern Irish humour should be able to handle it, but we can't because it's a bodily function, because we can't handle a stoma bag. At least that's how it was until Brian Kennedy went out and talked about it.
"The fact that he was able to show it off, say what they were and just say it like it was, well, it worked. I think as long as it's matter of fact, people can understand."
David adds: "I'm happy to speak out about it too because if it helps one person, then that's the job done. It's great that famous people come out and do it, but I think it's twice as powerful when ordinary people also come out and say 'we're here, we exist and this is our story'. The more that happens, the more the stigma will pass away."
For more information, help and support with colostomy bags, log on to www.colostomyuk.org