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What is a colostomy bag, and what is used for?

Colostomy bags can be used to treat colon cancer, Crohn's disease, and colitis

Kashmira Gander
Tuesday 08 July 2014 09:12 BST
23-year-old make-up artist Bethany Townsend, who has been praised by Inflammatory Bowel Disease charities for posting a photo of herself on holiday wearing her colostomy bag
23-year-old make-up artist Bethany Townsend, who has been praised by Inflammatory Bowel Disease charities for posting a photo of herself on holiday wearing her colostomy bag

When make-up artist and Crohn’s disease patient Bethany Townsend shared a photo via Facebook showing her lounging in the Mexican sun with her colostomy bag on her stomach, the image quickly went viral and charities praised her for bravely raising awareness to the disease.

The 23-year-old has since been interviewed on TV, made international headlines, and encouraged scores of other people who wear colostomy bags to share their own selfies.

"I'm just so glad that it's brought about more awareness of Crohn's disease and it's made me feel so much more confident about the colostomy bags," she told the Mirror, adding that in Mexico she decided to wear a bikini for the first time since she has worn the bags.

"I realised that the colostomy bags didn't control me or define who I am," she said.

David Barker, Chief Executive of Crohn’s and Colitis UK, who posted Townsend's photo on their Facebook page, called her an “inspiring and brave young lady.”

He told The Independent: “People have drawn inspiration from her. These [inflammatory bowel diseases] are not conditions that people want to talk about as they can be embarrassing. We are hugely impressed with the work she has been doing which says: “This is me”."

But what is a colostomy bag, what is it used for, and how does it affect a patient’s life?

What is a colostomy?

A colostomy is a surgical procedure. During a colostomy, surgeons divert one end of the large intestine into a visible opening – known as a stoma – on the patient’s abdomen. A small pouch, or colostomy bag, is then placed over the stoma to collect waste products that would normally pass through a person's rectum and anus in the bathroom.

An ileostomy is a similar procedure that applies to the small, rather than the large, intestine.

When is a colostomy bag needed?

Colostomies - and resulting colostomy bags - are used to help patients who have problems with their colons.

Diseases which can lead to a person having a colostomy include bowel cancer, IBDs such as Crohn’s and colitis, and diverticulitis.

By diverting waste away, the colostomy bag can allow irritated or inflamed areas of the colon to heal.

“It’s worth nothing that Crohn’s doesn’t automatically mean a person must have a colostomy," Barker explained.

"There are 110,000 people with Crohn’s in the UK, and 50 pe cent of people with Crohn’s disease may need surgery in the first ten years that they have the disease.”

Are they permanent?

It depends on the patient. A colostomy can be permanent or temporary. The NHS estimates that around 6,400 permanent colostomies are carried out each year in the UK.

What is it like to live with a colostomy bag?

Having the equipment can be different from person to person - both in how long it is needed and how it affects a person’s quality of life, Barker explained.

“For every Bethany I could show you someone who is in remissions and is under control.”

“Some patients say [having a colostomy] was a very very tough decision, but say they feel they’ve got their life back because they’ve been so ill for so long. Others say “goodness me it has transformed my life because I don’t want to go out and talk to people, I worry about malfunctioning.”

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