Strong Women is a weekly series championing diversity in the world of sport, fitness and wellness.
Women are often bombarded with a singular image of what it means to be a woman on mainstream platforms – but the reality is that women of all sizes, ages, races and abilities can be fit, strong and love their bodies.
A Sport England study found that many women are put off from being active because of a fear of judgment.
We want to remind women of the beauty, strength and power that can be found in the diversity of the female form.
Caroline Bramwell was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis which left her malnutritioned and weak – her business suffered, she even struggled to be a mother to her children.
She decided to have surgery to have a stoma bag fitted to alleviate her pain and symptoms. Now she is embracing everything life throws at her.
(Picture: Caroline Bramwell)How did your ulcerative colitis (UC) diagnosis impact your life?
I was pregnant with my second child when I was diagnosed – I was in the first trimester.
I had initially worried that the bleeding was potentially a miscarriage, but it was coming from the back passage.
I had been to the doctor and I was referred to a consultant at hospital. They suspected UC, but couldn’t do an internal inspection by colonoscopy until I was more than six months pregnant, as we didn’t want to risk the baby.
After Natasha was born, by C-section, I lost two stone in weight over two weeks.
The disease inflames your large intestine and this reduces your ability to absorb nutrients, so I was becoming malnutritioned and fatigued by the blood loss.
The only way to suppress this autoimmune disorder was to be put on a course of steroids.
This became a long yo-yo of trying to wean down off the steroids and then managing another flare up when it kicked back in.
This went on for four years after Natasha’s birth, with the disease becoming harder and harder to get under control.
‘As a mother I felt like I was becoming increasingly invisible’ (Picture: Caroline Bramwell)How did your illness affect your ability to be a mother and life your life?
As it became harder to control the disease, I would not be able to travel very far.
The fatigue meant I would have to rest in the afternoons, I ran my own PR and marketing agency and my two members of staff had to cover for me.
The disease leaves you with lack of bowel control, I was spending hours in the toilet doubled up in pain. The attack could come on at an instant, and I would have to find a toilet immediately.
I knew where every public toilet and shop was that I could dash into. I even knew every wall, tree and bush that I could potentially dive behind – such is the immediacy of the disease.
This meant that I could not go out and meet potential new clients, which meant gradually the business was shrinking, with no new business.
The medications also created a fogginess in the mind and I wasn’t making the best decisions. As work was drying up, I had to let my staff go.
As a mother I felt like I was becoming increasingly invisible.
When Natasha was born my body couldn’t produce enough milk to feed her, so she was bottle fed from two weeks.
Rolling around on the floor playing with my children – I have a son, Robert, who is two years older than Natasha – was impossible as the movement would trigger an attack and I would have to dash off to the toilet.
‘I wanted to lose the weight and to get my freedom back’ (Picture: Caroline Bramwell)All I could do is sit on the sidelines while my husband, Craig, did all the ‘rough and tumble’ playing with them.
We went away for a weekend to Butlins when the children were five and three years old, but the family would have to just hang around waiting outside the toilet for me for 30-60 minutes at a time.
In the end I spent more time cooped up in the chalet on my own, in pain and in tears, whilst my family went off to have fun without me.
There was no quality of life for me, and my family were missing having a mum.
Tell us about your decision to opt for drastic surgery
One of the down-sides of long-term steroid use is weight gain. I had bloated out over four years on the large concoction of medication, to the point where I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror without crying.
It was this all-round poor quality of life for me, and for my family, that made me come to the decision to have surgery to have my large intestine and bowel removed and to live with a permanent ileostomy.
This is where the end of the small intestine protrudes through the stomach wall, and I wear a stoma bag to collect body waste.
A few months after my surgery, having suffered with the side effects of osteoarthritis from the steroids, I decided I wanted to get the old me back again.
I wanted to lose the weight and to get my freedom back. I knew this would mean regular exercise, but I had always been a couch potato.
I knew that I was never going to get out and lose the weight if I didn’t set myself a goal and make myself go out.
So I signed up for a charity cycle event – cycling from London to Paris in 24 hours. I did this as a relay with my friend, Doreen, who was a keen cyclist.
‘Going through such awful times with UC, I have a renewed outlook on life’ (Picture: Caroline Bramwell)My surgery had been in March 2009, I signed up for L2P24 in November 2009, and hired a personal trainer to get me fit for it.
I rode into Paris in July 2010 and watched the final stage of the Tour de France. I went on to ride another 24-hour charity event – Newcastle to London – two years later.
How has fitness helped you?
Initially fitness and regular exercise shook off the vestiges of the osteoarthritis.
I became more supple and the aches and pains went away. It was great to feel slimmer and fitter.
Being able to cycle those 270 miles to Paris proved to me that I was back.
Having my stoma bag is no hindrance to living life to the max.
Going through such awful times with UC, I have a renewed outlook on life. Our bodies can do so much more than we ever thought. I had a new appreciation for exercise – I was both physically and mentally fitter.
Being under water had been a fear of mine since a bad experience when I was a child.
If I got out of my depth, was splashed, or let my face go under, I would have a panic attack and hyperventilate.
Five years ago, having completed the cycle events, I wanted a new challenge.
My children swim like dolphins, so I decided I should learn to swim properly so I could spend time with them in the pool – making up for those lost years when they were tiny.
I went to my local swimming pool and joined the Learn to Swim group.
At first, my biggest hurdle was to put my face in the water; I found wearing mask-like goggles gave me some confidence and I had to learn to blow bubbles and breathe out under water.
It was very scary! Once I’d got the hang of it, I was off. I loved it.
I’d never realised how surreal it felt swimming under water.
‘I was probably being swept along by the thrill of it rather than my athletic prowess’ (Picture: Caroline Bramwell)You went from learning to swim to completing half Ironmans in just a few years? How did you get there?
After two months of swimming lessons, I thought: ‘I can cycle, I can swim… maybe I could do a little triathlon?’
It just seemed like the next step for me. I wasn’t looking to do anything massive; just a little local event, perhaps.
My ethos in life and business is to surround yourself with those you aspire to be like, so I joined the North Devon Tri Club.
I thought if I wanted to be a triathlete, I should train with triathletes. It was only at the first swim session that I realised just how far I would have to go to do what these guys do.
I started off with our in-club triathlon; I was terrified, but it was just us and I made it all the way round, albeit 20 minutes behind the last competitor.
I loved it, I loved the camaraderie and the thrill of achieving a triathlon.
Whilst my children had been my motivation to get me swimming, I met 2x Ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington, at our local Park Run. Her story inspired me to go further.
As my fellow club mates were signing up for bigger events, I joined in too.
In all honesty, I was probably being swept along by the thrill of it rather than my athletic prowess. But for each event I finished, the more I wanted to do.
From those local sprint triathlons, I have been racing in Half Ironman events for the last three years – last year alone I competed in Outlaw 70.3, Ironman Staffs 70.3 and Ironman Weymouth 70.3.
‘A “strong woman” to me is someone who is resilient’ (Picture: Caroline Bramwell)On 14th July this year, I will be on the start line of Ironman UK in Bolton – going for the full Ironman. This is 2.4 miles open water swim, 112 miles bike and 26.2 miles run.
As people heard about me doing these crazy distances with my ileostomy, I had such support; hearing how my story was inspiring others inspired me to push harder – it still does!
Seeing others with and without an ileostomy pushing their own personal boundaries is my on-going motivation.
In the last couple of years I have been fortunate enough to have been sponsored by Ileostomy & Internal Pouch Association (IA) and HUUB wetsuits.
IA is the charity I turned to for support when I first confronted the suggestion of surgery and I am so proud to be able to return their generosity and represent them.
I now get asked to speak at events – from corporate and health industry, to stoma care groups, triathlon festivals and in schools to inspire youngsters.
Why is fitness so important to you?
I have learnt that being fit, at whatever level, keeps you feeling young and alive.
When I was ill I thought my life was over, but here I am doing so much more than I’d ever dreamed possible.
Keeping active keeps your mind healthy too.
I love the adrenaline rush and the sense of achievement. No-one can take that feeling away from you; it bouys you up when you have your ‘off’ days – knowing how much you can do.
I think all women owe it to themselves to be the best version of themselves. It doesn’t have to be at the extreme levels I go to, but getting outside and moving is stimulation for the mind and body.
A ‘strong woman’ to me is someone who is resilient. Someone who is comfortable in her own skin; a woman who has the will and determination to make changes and take chances if the situation arose.
Life isn’t always a bed of roses; we have upsets and knock-backs. But every woman deserves to be her own ‘strong woman’.
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