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IBS vs. Colon Cancer: Understanding the Differences and Similarities

Published date: June 17, 2023 | Modified date:
by Dr Stephen Wangen

Here’s what we’re going to cover

  1. Can IBS be confused for colon cancer?
  2. Will a colonoscopy detect IBS?
  3. Does IBS Increase Your Risk of Developing Colon Cancer?
  4. Can You Have Both IBS and Colon Cancer?

IBS and colon cancer share many of the same symptoms, and it’s impossible to tell the difference between them based only on how you feel. I’ll help you figure out how to tell the difference and what to do.

Can IBS be confused for colon cancer?

The symptoms of IBS and colon cancer are exactly the same. With either one you can have diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, or abdominal pain. There is no way to tell the difference between IBS and colon cancer based on your symptoms.

IBS pain and colon cancer pain can be, and often are, exactly the same. An IBS stool and a colon cancer stool can, and often are, exactly the same.  Although it’s possible to have blood in your stool when you have colon cancer, having blood in your stool does not mean that you have colon cancer, and it also doesn’t mean that you don’t have IBS.

Fortunately, most people that have IBS don’t have colon cancer, but colon cancer is one of the most common cancers, and you want to make sure that you aren’t one of the people who does have it. And the primary way to do that is to see a gastroenterologist, who will usually perform a colonoscopy to rule out colon cancer. They may also do some other imaging work to help diagnose it.

Another common and newer tool for ruling out colon cancer is a stool test that detects colon cancer. This is a very useful test, but it does not and should not replace a colonoscopy. Why not?  The stool test can only pick up a problem once you already have colon cancer. It does nothing to prevent colon cancer.

However, a colonoscopy can prevent colon cancer. A colonoscopy will detect polyps, which are how colon cancer starts. Not all polyps are precancerous, but when you have a colonoscopy, your doctor will usually remove any polyps that they see. That absolutely does prevent colon cancer. And the earlier you have those polyps removed, the less likely it is that you will develop colon cancer.

You know the old saying, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And this is a great example of that. Preventing cancer is far more important than having to try to treat it.

So I encourage you to not be satisfied with only doing the stool test for ruling out colon cancer. But be forewarned, your doctor (who essentially works for your insurance company) will probably recommend a stool test instead of a colonoscopy, because it’s a lot less expensive for the insurance company to do the stool test than to give everyone a colonoscopy. So you may have to push back.

Don’t take “no” for an answer. Even I had to push my doctor to refer me for a colonoscopy when I turned 50, otherwise he wasn’t going to do it. And guess what, they found a polyp and removed it.

Am I glad that I had the colonoscopy? You bet I am!

Will a colonoscopy detect IBS?

ibs vs colon cancerMost people with IBS will be referred to a gastroenterologist to rule out colon cancer and many other things. If you haven’t had a colonoscopy done, then I highly recommend that you do one. Colonoscopies are very good at ruling out colon cancer and checking your colon for a lot of other problems.

However, on the flip side, they do absolutely nothing for your IBS. You can’t see IBS with a colonoscopy, and you can’t treat IBS with a colonoscopy. So be aware that a colonoscopy will only help to rule out other problems, but it won’t help you with your IBS.  Once you have those other issues ruled out by the colonoscopy, then you need to see an IBS specialist like we have at the IBS Treatment Center.

Does IBS Increase Your Risk of Developing Colon Cancer?

Studies are conflicted on this one. Some say that having IBS does increase your risk of developing colon cancer, and others say that it doesn’t. One hypothesis for this is that maybe people are being misdiagnosed with IBS when they actually have colon cancer, and that those people are throwing off the results of some studies. That may be true, and it’s even more reason to make sure that you always have colon cancer ruled out when you have these digestive symptoms.

Can You Have Both IBS and Colon Cancer?

Absolutely. You can certainly have both IBS and colon cancer. About 10% of the population has IBS, and about 4% of the population gets colon cancer.  So there is a percentage of people who will have both.

Could you have IBS? And have you had colon cancer ruled out? Please be sure that you do. And if you need help solving your IBS, schedule a virtual appointment with us.

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