IBS vs. Colon Cancer: What The Signs Are Telling You
It’s easy to confuse the symptoms associated with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and many other gastrointestinal ailments, including colon cancer. Knowing the difference between symptoms associated with IBS and colon cancer can save you from a lot of anxiety, and more importantly, can help your doctor pinpoint what type of treatment you may need to get your life back on track.
IBS is a chronic condition that affects the large intestine, requiring both dietary adjustments and medical treatment. IBS is more prevalent in women than men and affects between 25-45 million Americans.
The Many Facets of IBS
IBS can occur at any point in a patient’s life, but tends to appear before the age of 50. It can resolve, only to return. Many sufferers of IBS experience abdominal pain, gas or other symptoms when they eat or drink certain foods or beverages, including wheat, dairy products, beans, cabbage, milk and carbonated drinks.
Symptoms of IBS include:
- Abdominal pain – The pain is often in the lower abdomen, most prevalent on the left side and not progressive.
- Irregular bowel movements – People with IBS go through cramping, abdominal pain, gas, diarrhea or constipation, or both.
- Bloating - Gas collects in the gut, which can cause the abdomen to feel full and appear rounder than usual.
“IBS symptoms can also be triggered by other ordinary stimuli, such as stress, hormonal changes, and certain medications,” says Dr. Seth Gendler, a gastroenterologist with White Plains Hospital Physician Associates in New Rochelle. “Switching to a low-fiber or other specialized diet can help people who suffer from IBS. However, if you don’t get any relief, it can be a sign you may have something more serious and you need to talk to your doctor about adjusting your treatment strategy.”
Understanding the Symptoms of Colon Cancer
In contrast to IBS, most colon cancer cases occur in people over the age of 50 - although it has been on the rise in young people. The symptoms may not become obvious until it has already spread. “It’s a slow growing cancer, which is one reason colonoscopy screenings are so important,” says Dr. Gendler. “When you compare the two, the symptoms of IBS mimic colon cancer, especially the coexistence of pain and altered bowel movements.”
There are several red flags that can help identify this serious and potentially malignant condition:
- Abdominal pain that is constantly changing in character or worsening over time.
- Rectal bleeding, either showing as bright red blood or dark blood mixed in with a stool.
- A persistent change in your bowel habits, including diarrhea or constipation, or a change in the consistency or shape of your stool.
- Unexplained weight loss caused by a tumor blocking the colon.
Early Detection Improves the Outcome
A colonoscopy is the gold standard to prevent or slow cancer. This procedure detects polyps, which can be removed before they develop and spread. When colon cancer is found before it spreads the five-year survival rate is 91%.
“As with most types of cancer, the chances of a complete cure depend on how far it has advanced by the time it is diagnosed,” says Dr. Gendler. “If the cancer is confined to the bowel, surgery will often be able to completely remove it and possibly cure it. If you suspect you are at risk for colon cancer, you owe it to yourself to get screened regularly.”