Understanding the difference between IBS and bowel cancer

bowel cancer symptoms

April marks both IBS and Bowel Cancer awareness months, and these two conditions also share many similar symptoms as they affect the same part of the body.

Our health is shaped by a complex interaction between many factors, especially when conditions have overlapping symptoms, which can often lead to anxiety and confusion. Consulting a healthcare professional at an early stage is essential, as they can accurately distinguish and diagnose different conditions and help you manage your health effectively.

What are the symptoms of IBS?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS, is a chronic condition affecting the large intestine. The bowel or large intestine is at the end of your digestive tract or colon.

The most common symptoms of IBS are changes to regular bowel movement, whether that is constipation or diarrhoea. Other symptoms can include abdominal pain, bloating, and a sensation that bowel movements are incomplete. Mucous in the stool is very common and is often whitish.

Even though it is a long-term condition, symptoms often fluctuate in frequency and severity. Certain foods can trigger symptoms of IBS, as well as stress, anxiety and hormonal changes.

Mild to moderate IBS is usually managed with lifestyle changes. Severe symptoms that are affecting quality of life may require medication.

IBS is typically diagnosed by taking a comprehensive medical history and reviewing your symptoms. This will cover your medications and if you’ve had any recent infections or periods of stress. A family history will also be taken to see if there are any instances of celiac disease or colon cancer. Testing is usually to rule out other conditions.

What are the signs and symptoms of colon cancer?

Symptoms of colon cancer can include changes to your bowel habits that last for more than a few days. This could be the following:

  • abdominal pain
  • cramping
  • diarrhoea
  • constipation
  • iron deficiency anaemia
  • blood in your stool or rectal bleeding
  • narrowing of the stool
  • mucous in the stool, usually bloody or dark black
  • the feeling that bowel movements aren’t complete
  • the urge to have a bowel movement when there is no need
  • fatigue
  • unexplained weight loss
  • weakness

Colon cancer will be diagnosed by taking a complete medical history as well as checking whether there is a family history of colon cancer. Risk factors include colorectal polyps, type 2 diabetes and ulcerative colitis, as well as a poor diet and lack of physical activity. In addition to a physical examination, diagnostic tests include blood and stool tests, a colonoscopy, tissue biopsy, and imaging tests, such as an X-ray or CT scan of the colon and rectum.

Can IBS lead to colon cancer?

This is a common concern, but although IBS can be very uncomfortable, it rarely leads to more severe health problems. Unlike inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, IBS does not cause inflammation, a critical factor in colorectal cancer risk.

However, this doesn’t mean you should ignore symptoms and should seek immediate medical advice if you’re experiencing new symptoms such as unexplained weight loss or rectal bleeding.