Belfast woman poses proudly with her colostomy bag in bid to break the stigma
A 36-year-old woman from Belfast has posed proudly with her colostomy bag in a bid to break the stigma surrounding them.
Donna Cusack had her bowel removed to save her life in September last year.
Now, following a photo-shoot with it on display, she says she wants to fight to de-stigmatise the pouch, sometimes known as a stoma, which saved her life.
"Before I became ill, I was fit and healthy. I ran races for charity and went to the gym regularly," she told BBC News NI.
"But after months of ignoring digestive problems, which finally spiralled out of control, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis.
"It's a form of inflammatory bowel disease, and doctors told me my bowel had to be removed.
"I was so drugged up and in shock that I didn't have a chance to take the news in properly.
"I knew it was a matter of life and death and it had to be done straight away."
Following the operation, Donna suffered stress and anxiety; losing almost a stone in weight and said she hardly recognised herself on release from hospital.
"My hair began to fall out and my skin broke out in spots. I was repulsed by the bag itself and having to change it," she said.
"I felt unattractive and my relationship with my boyfriend broke down.
"At times I felt like the only one going through life with a stoma, because people are still so uncomfortable about them."
Donna, who is a veterinary care assistant, said the stigma of wearing the bag contributed to her stress, but she now accepts that it saved her life.
"I've realised that having the bag doesn't mean I am a less of a person or less attractive," she said.
"If it wasn't for the operation I wouldn't be here now and I want other people to realise colostomy bags are a symbol of strength and not weakness."
In April, Donna took part in a professional photo-shoot with the help of a group of hairdressers, photographers and make-up artists known as Chronically Fabulous.
The group offer free makeovers and portraits to women with chronic diseases.
'I won't be ashamed'
On the day of the shoot, Donna made the decision to be pictured with the bag on display, rather than hidden away, and says she hopes it will help people accept her.
"I realised that if I want other people to accept their bags, then I should be the change I want to see, and embrace mine," she said.
"It is part of who I am and that is why I'm telling my story. I won't be ashamed and I don't want others to be either."