Defying the limits

08 September 2023
Andrew hiked 7 km to the top of Pulpit Rock in Stavanger, Nowa, reaching over 1200ft
Andrew hiked 7 km to the top of Pulpit Rock in Stavanger, Nowa, reaching over 1200ft - Andrew Wakefield

Andrew Wakefield tells StomaTips how he defied expectations when got his ostomy. Not only continuing his fitness journey, but thriving

In 1992, at the age of 13, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Throughout my teenage years, I grappled with the challenges posed by this chronic illness, ultimately undergoing an ileostomy procedure in 1998. However, after three years, the ileostomy was reversed in 2001, marking the beginning of my transformation.
Over the next 18 years, I experienced a period where I regained my health and was able to extensively travel the world for long periods of time.

Everything was going very well for me. I was working as a personal trainer and sports therapist for an osteopath and for myself. However, in the early part of 2019, during a routine colonoscopy, adverse findings were discovered. After a period of silence, I finally had a meeting with my doctor’s team who informed me that they wanted me to see another specialist. I was referred to a consultant at Saint Mark’s Hospital. Around the same time, my wife and I were eagerly awaiting the arrival of our baby, due in July. I went for my appointment with the consultant and received the devastating news that I had rectal cancer that had invaded the prostate. This diagnosis came on the very day my daughter was born.

Andrew pictured with his two ostomies

It was incredibly difficult to process this news, and I was overwhelmed by the amount of information I received. I was not prepared for what lay ahead. The options presented to me were radiotherapy or chemotherapy, but the doctor did not recommend them. Instead, he advised that immediate surgery would provide the best chance of completely removing the cancer I had been diagnosed with.

Over the past 20 years, I had anticipated the possibility of needing a colostomy or ileostomy due to the deteriorating condition of my back passage. I had experienced numerous issues with leakage, so I was mentally prepared for this eventuality. However, what took me completely by surprise was being informed that I would also require a permanent urostomy. This news came as a tremendous shock. After coming to terms with the necessary procedures and exploring my options, my primary focus became witnessing my daughter’s growth. I was determined to be there for her, and I believed that the best course of action for me was to undergo a total pelvic exenteration, which would result in a permanent colostomy and urostomy. I underwent this procedure in September 2019.

As a result of my diagnosis and the subsequent operation, I had to immediately cease working. I received discouraging news that it was highly unlikely for me to return to my previous occupation as a personal trainer and sports therapist. I was advised to reassess my career choices and find a profession that would not pose any risks or complications to my health. The medical professionals explained that the physical demands of heavy lifting and the level of stress involved in my previous job would be too taxing for my body, potentially leading to hernias on the sites of my two ostomies.

The impact on my mental health was significant, and there were moments when I felt quite depressed. However, I was fortunate to have an incredible support system consisting of my colleagues, friends, family and a dedicated team. Their unwavering support motivated me to defy the diagnosis and strive to regain my physical fitness and strength to the best of my ability. I made a conscious decision to not let the diagnosis define me and instead focused on pushing myself to become the fittest and strongest version of myself.

Having been in excellent physical condition prior to my surgeries, I was aware that rebuilding my strength and fitness would present unique challenges. I recognised that my core strength, which had been a strong foundation for me, would need to be rebuilt as well. To embark on this journey, I took a cautious approach, starting with gradual and light lifting exercises. Additionally, I sought the guidance of a coach whom I trusted and knew would provide unwavering support throughout my recovery and fitness journey. With determination, I set a goal to regain my previous level of fitness and committed myself to the process.

During the first two years following my operation, up until around 2021, I found myself gaining a significant amount of weight. I neglected exercise, indulged in unhealthy eating habits and my work level was not on par with what it used to be. However, it was at my daughter’s birthday party when I came across a picture of myself taken about 15 months prior that I was truly taken aback. The person staring back at me was unrecognisable, carrying a substantial amount of excess weight compared to my former self. I had lost all sense of focus and motivation, and the desire to exercise had completely vanished.

It was at that moment that I made a conscious decision to make a positive change. I knew that getting back into shape would require hard work, careful planning and I had to find a level of intensity that I could handle. In early 2022, I began my fitness journey again after discussing my goals with a coach, who happened to be a friend of mine. Together, we developed a plan to reintroduce proper lifting techniques in the gym, utilising progressive overload methods. This involved gradually increasing the weight and intensity of each exercise while regularly changing the workout routine to keep the body challenged.

Over the last 14 months, I have got myself in the best shape of my life. I have completed the London Marathon, I lost 15 to 16 kilos of weight, gained about 8 kilos of muscle and now I am stronger, fitter and lifting heavier than I ever did before my operations.

Andrew running the London Marathon

In addition, I have taken an active role on social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook. My aim is to inspire and encourage others who, like myself, have ostomies or multiple ostomies. Through my posts and messages, I strive to convey a message of hope and resilience, urging individuals not to heed the negative voices that claim limitations. I firmly believe that with careful consideration, proper support and assistance, there are no boundaries to what we can achieve.

I am incredibly grateful for the amazing support network that has been instrumental in my journey. It is crucial to have such a network when facing challenges like mine. I have engaged with numerous individuals online, sharing my story, documenting the workouts I have been doing and offering tips and advice based on my personal experiences. I want to demonstrate that despite being initially overweight, I have managed to achieve a fantastic level of fitness and strength. It is particularly satisfying to overcome these obstacles as previously mentioned, doctors cautioned me to take it easy and avoid heavy lifting to prevent hernias.

The Spartan Beast obstacle race was 21 km and was only 1 of the 3 races Andrew did that weekend!

Currently, I maintain a consistent workout routine, going to the gym four to five times a week. In addition to weightlifting, I engage in activities such as running, cycling, and participate in obstacle races and endurance events throughout the year. These endeavours serve as personal challenges that push me to become a better version of myself post-operation. One of my greatest strengths lies in my mental resilience. Despite the scepticism from so-called experts, I have steadfastly refused to listen to their doubts. With my background in the fitness industry and a deep understanding of my body and its response to the operation, I have defied the naysayers and showcased what I am truly capable of achieving.

I want to emphasise that my intention is not to boast, but rather to provide hope and inspiration to individuals who are facing similar challenges, particularly young men and women who have transitioned from a fitness-oriented lifestyle to living with an ostomy. It is common to feel hopeless and believe that there are no options available. However, there is always hope and there are steps that can be taken to improve one’s situation. While there is a risk of hernias, I have found that wearing the appropriate support belts, such as the fantastic support belt from Comfizz, has been immensely helpful. Additionally, I utilise other support belts that I have used in the past, ensuring that I do not place excessive strain on my body. It is crucial to prioritise safety and take necessary precautions to minimise any potential risks.

I do about 20 to 30 hours of sports massage therapy a week, which puts a tremendous strain on my body, but I am now able to do this and work out extensively throughout the week, pushing myself harder than I ever have before.

I think the main thing I want to get across is there is always hope and please never give up, I will always be here to talk to people, I talk to people in the gym, I talk to people online and try to give as much information and help as I possibly can.

There are moments in life when we must accept the unacceptable, face unexpected challenges and find the strength to move forward. It is crucial to keep pushing ourselves, working harder and refusing to believe that we are limited by our ostomies. Personally, I have been fortunate to lead a fulfilling life thus far, and I am grateful to have reached the four-year mark of being cancer-free in my latest scans. I am actively engaged in work, cherishing precious moments with my daughter and wife, and embarking on extensive travels despite having ostomies. Returning to the gym has been a wonderful experience, and I hope to continue inspiring others by sharing my journey and supporting them in their own endeavours.

I am committed to thriving and continuing my fitness journey in the years to come. My ultimate motivation is to inspire others, especially my four-year-old daughter, by demonstrating that I can overcome obstacles and achieve things I never thought possible.

I invite you to explore my social media platforms, where I share my stories and videos. I am always available to offer assistance, provide tips and share my knowledge as an active sports therapist with a background in sports science and physiology. Having experienced Crohn’s disease and undergone ostomies and surgeries myself, I can offer guidance and support tailored to individual needs, helping others navigate their own
fitness journeys.

My story is one of hope, resilience and determination. I encourage you to reach out to me if you ever need guidance or support. Remember, it’s not about how we fall, but how we rise and continue pushing forward. Our journeys define us, and by persistently pursuing our goals, we can achieve remarkable things.

Andrew Wakefield is a sports massage therapist at Sam Hall Osteopaths
Instagram: @2_bags_along_for_my_journey