Empower to Inspire: Jenny Carlson and life with a stoma
There are many empowering and inspiring women involved in handball - and in the first of a new series to mark International Women's Day on 8 March, we focus on how Jenny Carlson has overcome the challenges of a chronic illness to shine as a top handball player.
Brest Bretagne Handball centre back Jenny Carlson is in the middle of a stellar career, with appearances for the Swedish national team at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, 2021 IHF Women's World Championship and EHF EURO 2022, as well as an EHF Champions League Women quarter-finalist last year.
But as well as making her name on court, Carlson has used her profile to raise awareness of life with a stoma. In 2018, after years of suffering from ulcerative colitis, Carlson underwent an emergency ileostomy - but she has not let that stop her from pursuing her dream of a top handball career.
A stoma is a bag attached to the stomach which collects waste - it is changed when full. People can have stomas to help with a variety of conditions, including cancers, hernias and bowel conditions.
In 2020 Carlson set up an Instagram account, @athletewithstoma, to raise awareness of living with a stoma. Last year, at the Women's EHF EURO 2022, she spoke to the (Un)informed Handball Hour podcast about the condition and why she has opened up about it.
"Not many people know what is and a lot of people are scared of it, both the people that maybe will get it but also the people who don’t know what it is," Carlson told the podcast.
"I really wanted to have that role model when I got it, that you can continue with your life, that you can be physically active and play handball, be really physical, and it’s worked really good for me."
Carlson said that while she was ready for the operation when she had it - because she had been sick for about five years - the transition to living with the stoma was difficult.
"I know that it was unsure if I could play again, and the doctors and also my coaches they didn’t know, and it was hard to find a club after it because no one knew what it was about and how I would play handball with it again. But I was lucky to get a club and it developed after that," she explained.
"Now I understand how sick I actually was, and now I can do what I want, so it’s good now," she added.
Carlson revealed that she has been open about the stoma to new teammates when joining new clubs, and she is aware that being a national team and EHF Champions League player gives her the perfect profile to talk about the stoma.
"I have heard a lot of stories, when people have written to me, and I also write to them. It’s been a big journey since I got it. That’s really nice to hear when people write, and they thank me for being open because they don’t dare to be," she said.
Carlson has even been studying what taking part in physical activity with a stoma can mean, and recently earned her bachelor's degree in physical health science.
But she admits she still struggles sometimes with the stoma and what it means, posting on her Instagram in January: "There are days when I struggle with self-esteem and confidence with the ostomy. The last four years have been an challenge, in many ways, for me to become comfortable in my body with a bag on my belly. I'd be lying if I said it's always been easy for me."
She took some time out from social media, but has returned because she says it is important to post about her reality and to encourage others to ask for help. Judging by the comments Carlson receives every day, what she is doing really is inspirational for others.
Photos © Marco Wolf, Jozo Cabraja / kolektiff