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Walk of hope and gratitude

About the author

My name is John Cunningham and I live in Milton Keynes with my wife Wendy. Having her steadfast support helped me adjust to life with not only a urostomy but a colostomy too. Now we’re setting ourselves the challenge of walking from Land’s End to John O’Groats, to show there can be life after cancer and that you can achieve your goals, even living with two stomas.

John’s story

For many who take on the epic challenge of walking from Land’s End to John O’Groats, it’s a bucket list ‘must do’, a test of endurance and a celebration of the human spirit.

For my wife Wendy and me, it is all of this and more. It is an act of gratitude for my recovery from advanced bowel cancer following surgery for a colostomy and a urostomy. It’s also an opportunity for me to show that living with a stoma (or even two!) does not need to hold you back from doing what you enjoy. Along the way, we’ll be raising funds for charities close to our hearts.

Life sometimes throws you a huge curveball. Back in March 2020 – shortly before the first UK lockdown and just as I was looking forward to retirement, I was diagnosed with stage 3-4 bowel cancer. To say that getting this news was a wake-up call would be a massive understatement. As Wendy and I took it in, we realised that to help us both and give me the very best chance of beating the cancer, we’d need to make some lifestyle changes. This included replacing processed food with healthier organic choices – a change that led to us each losing three stone in weight.

Five weeks of intense chemotherapy, plus radiotherapy, shrank the tumour to such an extent that the staff looking after me at Milton Keynes Hospital were completely amazed. But my bowel cancer journey did not end there. By January 2021, I was getting symptoms I couldn’t ignore and, with a scan showing a shadow on my prostate, I was referred to specialists at St Mark’s Hospital in London for further investigation.

Life-changing surgery

It was my consultant at St Mark’s who explained that the cancer was growing again. I’d need radical, lifechanging surgery to remove it and create a colostomy and urostomy. It means that for the rest of my life I’d be wearing two bags to collect my poo and wee. The surgeon would also need to remove my bladder, prostate and surrounding tissues. It was a lot to process but would give me the best possible chance of surviving the cancer.

All through my treatment and 15-hour surgery, the month in intensive care that followed and the tough process of rehabilitation at home, Wendy and I held fast to our faith. We knew many friends and family were praying for us, which was really uplifting. We also held tight to our retirement plan of walking from Land’s End to John O’Groats.

We’re keen walkers and our adventures have included climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, following the Inca Trail and trekking to Everest Base Camp in Nepal – plus completing many UK routes. So we never gave up hope that our retirement challenge would happen, despite the uncertainty facing us after I was diagnosed.

Embracing the challenge

I’m finally well enough to take on our epic walk and feeling more confident of completing it while managing both stomas. Meanwhile, the past few months have been a whirlwind of planning for us both, mapping out our route and making all the necessary huge logistical arrangements.

We start from Lands’ End on 1 April, aiming to reach our destination of John O’Groats in three months. We’ve hired a campervan, so we’ll be spending each day walking and then getting lifts to or from the van. It’s only thanks to friends and family, as well as the kindness of strangers who’ve got in touch via our Instagram page (@bonkerswithbags), that we can do it this way.

I’m so incredibly grateful to have reached this point. It hasn’t been easy, and I could never have made it without Wendy. She has been with me every step of the way.

Our chosen route will see us cover around 1,000 miles – which feels both daunting and exciting! We want to show people there can be life after cancer, even with two stomas. There is hope, so never give up on your dreams.

It worked for us

Wendy Cunningham, a retired Advanced Nurse Practitioner, supported husband John throughout his cancer treatment and recovery from surgery. Below she shares the couple’s ‘top tips, with the aim of helping those in similar circumstances.

• Aim to get yourself as fit as possible before your operation, and if you are overweight, try to lose some. It’s important not to overdo this though, bearing in mind that you will lose weight after your surgery.

• If you can afford to, buy organic food to avoid pesticides. We also reduced the amount of processed food and sugar in our diet, and we feel so much better for it.

• Hold onto a goal to work towards post-surgery.

• If you can, try to avoid being discharged from hospital on a Friday. In many areas, GP surgeries and stoma nurse clinics are not open during weekends.

• Practice self-compassion. It’s natural to have down days, so be kind to yourself – and keep going.

• Don’t expect to be up and running straight away. It takes time to recover after such major surgery.

• Your stoma nurse is there to answer your queries and address any concerns.

• Being part of a local stoma group has been helpful to us and we’ve found we can be helpful to others, too. The UA has several branches and groups or can link you up with a trained ‘buddy’ in your area who can provide you with support.

• Accept counselling if you need it. Going through stoma surgery can feel akin to a bereavement and affect your body image, but it does get better and you will learn to live again.

• Never give up hope.