Many years ago, when I was living in London, I worked with a woman who embarked on the Camino de Santiago solo in Spain. Each week, I would watch as she prepped and trained for this magnificent achievement. She didn’t know it, but at the time she lit a fire in me that I have been stoking for 22 years; that I too one day would do my own Camino trek.

Early last month, I completed a section of the ‘Portuguese route’ on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, with my husband Patrick and my children Connor and Molly. The Camino de Santiago, also known as the Way of St. James, is a famous pilgrimage of medieval origin where people journey to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in the northwest of Spain. The full route distance is 800 km which can take anywhere from two to three weeks or longer; however, we gained our certificate walking the last 136 km over seven days. The weather in Vigo Spain where we started was a sweaty 35 degrees Celsius and the ‘flat route’ was far from it, with undulating hills that made your heart pound and your legs cramp.

Along the way, we stopped in Redondela, Arcade, Caldas de Reis, Pontevedra, Padron, Teo and very gratefully made it into the square of the famous Santiago De Compostela (Cathedral of Santiago). The Way of St James, or ‘The Way’ as it is referred to, shows pilgrims that whatever life challenges we are facing, we can just wake up, grab our bags and start walking. We walked with no intention of speed or conforming to rules, just walking and being present. Sometimes when you are in nature and surrounded by your thoughts you can be lucky enough to have reflection time or a profound breakthrough. I had certainly experienced my own breakthrough that I’m extremely grateful for.

I have faecal incontinence because of a birthing injury 12 years ago. I had to have an ileostomy initially, then a reversal (where my bowel was reconnected and returned to my abdomen) and had to ‘learn to poo’ again at age 34. I was in nappies with my two young children and in fact my son was toilet trained before me. It’s been incredibly isolating and difficult at times, however five years ago I set myself a goal to complete my own ‘pilgrimage’ around my local area. I realised that even though the doctors told me I may never be able to walk around the block due to faecal urgency and incontinence, I wanted to find out exactly what my body was capable of. I ended up walking 100 days in a row, starting from the letterbox to the end of the driveway, back to the letterbox and repeating. Soon I could walk as far as six km without having an accident. I knew then that my body was capable of far more than I had thought or believed.

The Camino de Santiago trip was back on the cards! My dreams were renewed, and I was pursuing them with gusto. In July this year we set off for Portugal, spending days in Lisbon and Porto before commuting to Vigo, Spain to start the Camino de Santiago.

In the lead up to the trip, I was extremely worried about bowel or faecal urgency, as I have short notice between needing to go and going. As you can imagine this was nerve-wracking, being in the middle of a walking trail, in a foreign country, not knowing where the next toilet would be. I’m extremely happy to report that I was able to manage my incontinence throughout the trek, with preparation, a practiced routine, monitoring my diet and fluid intake and having the necessary supplies on hand.

I learnt that incontinence is no reason to put off a long-held dream. In fact, I would say completing the Camino with my family far surpassed my dream. It was thrilling, joyful, challenging, peaceful and selffulfilling. It was also a great reminder that while incontinence is part of my life, I can still live my life to the fullest and follow my dreams.

Leanne's essential travelling tips

  • Keep track of your water intake. Don't share your water bottle, so you know exactly how much you're drinking.
  • I took sanitiser, wipes, nappy bags for used wipes and change of underwear in my daily pack (just in case), which was important as some public toilets were without paper/soap.
  • Keep up your fibre intake with fruit and vegetables as best you can by ordering extra fruit salad or side salads where possible.
  • Ultimately believe the day will go well and remember ‘the way always presents’ meaning whatever you need, it will come... and it does! Buen Camino!

What is an ileostomy?

An ileostomy is a type of stoma. It is a procedure performed to help direct digestive waste out of the body, often due to bowel conditions such as bowel cancer, inflammatory bowel disease (e.g Crohn’s disease) or bowel trauma. This involves surgically making an opening that connects the small intestine or bowel to the outside of the abdomen. For some people, this surgery is temporary, often to allow the large bowel or anus to recover and can be reversed once the body has healed.

What is a stoma?

A stoma is a small surgical opening made on the abdomen and is most often connected to the bowel directly, or a piece of bowel joined to the bladder to allow waste (urine or faeces) to be diverted out of the body. It is covered with a collection bag or pouch which needs to be emptied regularly. A stoma may be temporary or permanent, depending on the cause. The most common reasons for needing a stoma include bowel or bladder cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, diverticulitis or an obstruction to the bowel or bladder.

What is a stoma reversal?

A stoma reversal is surgery to reattach the ends of the bowel together after a period of rest following previous surgery. The stoma is often used for a period of time to allow for healing of a section of the bowel or the anus.