Paul Anderson: How fearsome ex-St Helens and Bradford prop is 'tackling the stoma stigma'

Paul Anderson
Paul Anderson was a fearsome prop during his rugby league career

Paul Anderson has a reputation for being one of the most feared forwards of his generation. He's also a multi-trophy winning former international.

But in his early 20s, he must have feared that his rugby league career might be over before it had even properly started.

The giant prop found himself stopped in his tracks, not by an opponent on the field, but by a bowel illness that needed surgery to cure.

He spent nearly two years out of the game, and was forced to wear a colostomy bag, but after having the surgery reversed, he recovered to win caps for England and Great Britain and won Grand Finals, Challenge Cups and World Club Challenges with Bradford and St Helens.

Now Anderson - the England Knights and Warrington Under-19s Academy coach - tells his story in this week's 5 Live Rugby League podcast in a bid to help take the stigma out of stoma and prove there is life after surgery.

"It's one of those things that happens and you've just got to get on with it. Now we're trying to raise this awareness - tackling the stoma stigma," he says.

The illness that might have ended a career

Paul Anderson
Paul Anderson was part of an 'Awesome Foursome' prop collective at Bradford alongside Brian McDermott, Joe Vagana and Stuart Fielden

The story started for Castleford-born Anderson in the infancy of a hugely successful rugby league career as both player and a coach.

"I was at Halifax, they'd bought me as a young player from Leeds. I hadn't really fulfilled any potential and then this hit," recalls Anderson in the podcast.

"My wife Lisa and I had just bought our first house; we'd just moved in together. It was a fairly stressful time. Contracts aren't like they are now.

"I was on appearance money and I didn't work either. If you didn't pay, you got nothing.

"It just started as a little discomfort around the bottom area. Basically I fell incontinent for a long period and was going through some pain there.

"I was having minor surgery after minor surgery and nothing was really getting better. I thought, 'I've had enough of this' so I went to see a professor in Leeds and he said: 'You've two options. You can crack on with what you're doing or you have this surgery which is a means to an end.'

"Straight away I just said: When can we do it? I couldn't carry on as I was."

The most painful surgery in a career of operations

Anderson did eventually have the surgery reversed, which allowed him to carry on with his career. But he admits to suffering some difficult times in his recovery.

"The surgery was the most painful thing I've ever had. I've had some horrendous injuries, reconstructions of knees, shoulders, groins, arms, everything from playing rugby league," he says.

"But that surgery was something different. People who know me know you can set your clock by my toilet habits and I was sat in a hospital bed waiting to go to the toilet, and nothing would happen. It was like trying to part with a baby tree.

"It was just that pain of difference. It was just something different."

Forget the embarrassment, says Anderson

Anderson has gone public on his former health issues to help erase any embarrassment that others, going through similar treatment, may be suffering. Talking about it, he says, can help.

"One-hundred percent," he says. "I think it is with any sort of illness. I think anything that's going to be long-lasting or life-threatening, actually admitting that there's an issue is the number one thing more than anything.

"One of the things as human beings is that we're worried about what other people think. There's always a stigma about what people think, especially when it's embarrassing."

'Why should surgery stop you playing?'

Paul Anderson
Anderson is the England Knights coach and Warrington Under-19s boss

Anderson hung his boots as a professional in 2006, moving into coaching to replace the hit of elite sport, but has been tempted back on to the field more recently for a special reason.

"Late last year I'd seen some things on Twitter," Anderson says. "There's a charity out there called ColostomyUK. They try to put rugby league games on for ostomates, people who have stomas. People have had this surgery for many different reasons, but why should that stop you?

"Last year I played a game against Featherstone for the PDRL (Physical Disability Rugby League) team, and I thought I'll follow this [on Twitter]. I hit the follow button and got a private message back from Giovanni from Team Colostomy UK and we had a conversation.

"I told him my story and he was taken aback by the things I'd achieved since that point. I'd been sitting on it for a fair while, up until now, but it's all there now to try to promote [the issue]."

Now the burly former front-rower is hoping others will open up about their illness to overcome any embarrassment they might have. And his advice is to seek out those who may be going through the same issues.

"Get in touch with people like ColostomyUK," he says. "The people there are great and I'm pretty confident they will push people in the right direction."

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