Colon Cancer Versus Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): What Are the Symptoms?

The two conditions can manifest in similar ways, and it’s a good idea to get a clear diagnosis and effective treatment as soon as possible.iStock

Colon cancer and IBS are common health problems that share some symptoms, such as excessive gas, constipation, and abdominal pain. Because there is often overlap in symptoms, it can be hard to know whether you’re dealing with colon cancer or IBS. The good news is that you’re not alone. Gastroenterologists have specialized training in the digestive system and can create a plan for managing your digestive symptoms.

What Is Colon Cancer?

Colon cancer is the short term for colorectal cancer. It happens when cells in the colon or rectum grow out of control. Your colon and rectum are part of your digestive system. The colon is the first and longest part of your large intestine. The role of your colon is to absorb water and nutrients from foods. The leftover material becomes stool (poop). The rectum is the lower part of your large intestine where your body stores stool. Sometimes abnormal growths called polyps develop in the colon or rectum. Some polyps turn into cancer over time. Other polyps never turn into cancer. 

The best way to prevent colon cancer is to remove polyps before they ever have a chance to turn into cancer. That’s why it’s important to have colon cancer screening tests such as a stool-based test or colonoscopy. The American Cancer Society estimates that 106,590 new cases of colon cancer and 46,220 new cases of rectal cancer will be diagnosed in 2024.

“Irritable bowel syndrome does not increase your risk of colon cancer,” says David Palange, DO, a colon and rectal surgeon at ChristianaCare’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center and Research Institute in Newark, Delaware. “The best ways to minimize your risk are to get colon and rectal cancer screening in concordance with national guidelines, avoid smoking, maintain a healthy weight and avoid obesity, be physically active, and limit alcohol and red meat.”

What Is IBS?

IBS is a group of symptoms that occur together, including recurrent pain in the abdomen and changes in bowel movements, which may include diarrhea, constipation, or both. With IBS, there can be symptoms without any visible signs of damage or disease in your digestive tract. IBS is considered a functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder. Functional GI disorders are related to problems with how the brain and the gut work together. Today, doctors often talk about functional GI disorders as disorders of gut-brain interactions.

“In people with IBS, the gut receptors become sensitized — so sensitive that they feel things that most normal people don’t feel,” says Satish Rao, MD, PhD, the J. Harold Harrison, MD, Distinguished University Chair in Gastroenterology at Augusta University in Georgia. “Signals from the gut are constantly being sent to the brain, but the signaling is distorted such that patients with IBS have much more intense [digestive] symptoms.” This gut hypersensitivity is a sign of IBS.

According to the American College of Gastroenterology, 10 to 15 percent of adults in the United States suffer from IBS symptoms, but only 5 to 7 percent of adults have been formally diagnosed with IBS.

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