In 2015, Chris Stewart received a diagnosis of a rare bowel condition which, without surgery, was going to develop into cancer. As he was diagnosed so late, his doctors feared he would not live more than year if he didn’t quickly have surgery. As a result, Chris now lives with a stoma and in June 2019, he decided to embark on a six-day trek over the West Highland Way in Scotland to raise funds and awareness for the Ileostomy Association. Here, he shares his story.

stomaI crossed a huge variety of scenery along the way, from countryside parks to loch-shores, and from open moorlands to steep mountains. This was a solo, self-sufficient trek, carrying everything I needed, from food and shelter to emergency kit, clothing, and of course my stoma supplies! I hoped to prove that having a stoma doesn’t limit us, or stop us from doing anything that someone without a stoma could do.

Managing my stoma

The main issue was fluids. I carried a 1.5 litre water pouch with a handy drinking tube; which allowed drinking little and often without even pausing. Having to stop to refill takes quite a while with my mini water filter pump. It can be tricky balancing the need for water with weight. A litre of water weighs a kilo, and in a pack of 20kg or so, every bit you can save is worth it, and I found 1.5 litres and my water filter got me from stream to stream.

We ostomates don’t absorb nutrients particularly well, and too much water can actually make the issue worse where we are not getting the electrolytes. The other problem is that lots of water gives us really watery output in our bag which is not very comfortable when out walking. I decided to carry some electrolyte tablets to combat this and four of those drinks a day alongside water helped a lot. I also used Trio Pearls gelling sachets and they work a treat; making my bag a lot more comfortable.

The most important things for both hiking and folk with a stoma are hydration and nutrition. Often what is easy to carry and cook is not great for a stoma, but fresh is wildly impractical for six days!

I set off carrying six days-worth of food. Nothing fancy, just boil in the bag hiking meals, dry noodles, a tin of ham, another of tuna, and some dry pasta packets. I was going to be burning about 6000 calories a day; so, each evening camp meal needed to be almost 3000 calories, and then I would make up the rest with snacks and noodles or pasta for lunch.

Combatting the heat

I had been worried about how my stoma appliance would fare with the heat, and the extra problem of the way the hip strap on my rucksack sits right above my bag. As it turned out, it did really well. I use a two-piece bag system so that I can get rid of gas easily, and I use Trio Silex Silicone Flange Extenders. I find the silicone doesn’t peel away so easily from sweating and I also discovered that they stopped any rubbing from the bag’s hip strap on the flange which was ideal.

When I checked my stoma on day 2, I was surprised how well it was all holding up. I don’t often hike in the kind of heat I faced on the first few days, but even the Silex flange extenders were holding on! The pouch system I use is really thin and flexible, and sticks well, but I knew it would need changing after a few days. When I came to changing it on day 4, the midges had come out by then as the weather had dampened a bit, changing your stoma bag with them around was not much fun.

My stoma bag was generally really well behaved and not an issue during my trek, it was easy to manage and no more inconvenience than normal. I was really pleased with how well my products held up. It was not an easy challenge with all the movement, heat and rain but it did not take much focus at all.

On day 5 I did make the discovery that the Silex silicone flange extenders I use are also great for blisters and stopping some rubbing! All my blister plasters had gotten wet so I thought I’d give them a go and they were ideal. They are also waterproof, so they had survived far better than my plasters!

The finish line

On the final day, I was really excited and frankly a bit emotional. It had been a really hard challenge. Every muscle was aching, my feet had blisters on top of blisters, I was mentally tired, and I felt like I was running on empty. This was never going to be a nice relaxing walking holiday, but the level of work it required took me a bit by surprise.

Walking into Fort William on a busy warm day with people everywhere was very overwhelming, having been alone for seven days. I found a quiet dark table in a corner and ordered a lot of food! Table manners kind of went out of the window when the food arrived and I ate too quickly. The indigestion was terrible! A beer to wash it all down helped though. This caused the biggest stoma bag issue and I can’t blame the appliances; it was all about the volume of food! I realised I would have to find somewhere on the way home to do a change.

I don’t remember the bus journey down to Oban. I must have instantly fallen asleep, with my travel pillow still deflated! Oban was nice; I had an hour to kill there, and sat by the harbour watching the boats doing their thing in the setting sun and a hotel very kindly let me use their accessible toilet to change my bag. Much easier than in the Highland wilds!

A few days after the trip, it stilled seemed quite surreal being back home and around lots of people. I was still a bit sore and my feet were beaten, but otherwise I was recovering well. I felt quite anxious about being out and about the first couple of days which I had not really seen coming. Lots of wonderful messages of support were sent to me from friends, family and supporters – they really do help!

I did my best to update my Facebook feed and blog while I was walking and I am going to keep the pages going so I can use them as general ostomy hiking travel blog. You are welcome to get in touch, whether friend, family, supporter or just an interested ostomate.

I raised over £750.00 for the IA and I truly hope that what I achieved shows people with and without an ostomy that it is all in the mind. We are stronger than we think and capable of doing so much. It was hard work, but the sense of achievement sitting on that bench at the end was so spectacular. I would definitely do this again, but maybe over a longer time and with less weight!”

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