What’s the Difference Between IBS and Colon Cancer?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can have symptoms similar to colon cancer, so it is imperative to know the symptoms of GI conditions and visit your doctor for evaluation.

What is IBS?

IBS is a cluster of symptoms that occur together, including abdominal pain and a change in bowel habits, like chronic diarrhea, constipation or both.

IBS affects 10-15 percent of the population, and up to 45 million Americans live with this GI condition.

Similarities between IBS and colon cancer

GI distress can be embarrassing and confusing. Sometimes knowing how long you should wait before calling a doctor is difficult.

IBS symptoms can mimic other digestive problems like colorectal cancer. They can share similar symptoms and warning signs, such as abdominal pain, cramping, nausea, constipation, bloating and diarrhea. However, symptoms like unexplained weight loss or blood in the stool could be an indication that you need additional testing.

Other potential warning signs for colorectal cancer — the blanket term for colon cancer or rectal cancer — include the following:

  • A feeling that you are constantly full
  • Feeling that the bowel is not fully emptied
  • Urge to have a bowel movement when not needed
  • Persistent gas pain
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Anemia from blood loss

Get regular colonoscopy screenings

Because both IBS and colon cancer can be serious, you should not dismiss your symptoms or try to diagnose yourself. Instead, you may need a colon cancer screening to rule out colon cancer.

Colonoscopy is the best colon cancer screening test because your doctor can view the entire colon and remove precancerous lesions, called polyps, during the exam.

Adults at average risk for colon cancer should get a baseline screening at 45, but those with a family or personal history of polyps may need to get screened sooner.

Call your gastroenterologist for an appointment

Do you have recurrent abdominal pain and bowel problems? April is IBS Awareness Month. The only way to determine whether you have IBS, colon cancer or another digestive disorder is to visit your gastroenterologist.

At your visit, your GI doctor can review your symptoms and your medical history, as well as perform a physical exam. Your doctor may recommend some dietary changes to help treat symptoms of IBS, like avoiding gluten and increasing your fiber intake. You may need some tests to rule out certain health conditions, but your doctor will discuss these details at your appointment.