Medically reviewed on February 18, 2022 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
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Stomach pain, bloating, and trouble with bowel movements can put you on high alert. They’re often indicators that something isn’t quite right—but what? Both irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and colorectal cancers are possible culprits, but they’re sometimes confused because of their similar symptoms.
The main difference? While both may result in abdominal discomfort, colon cancer is often accompanied by fatigue, bloody stool, and/or unexplained weight loss as well. But there’s more to it than just that.
Before jumping to conclusions about your health or the health of someone you know, start by doing some research. Here we’ve compiled a detailed outline of these two conditions so that you can identify possible symptoms, how they are commonly diagnosed, and what may be involved along the pathway to recovery.
IBS is a chronic gastrointestinal disorder that causes abdominal discomfort during flare-ups. It’s estimated that somewhere between 9 to 23 percent of the world’s population may suffer from some degree of IBS . The severity of symptoms varies widely. For most, IBS symptoms include one or more of the following:
Some people also are left with a feeling that their bowel movement is incomplete.
While all these symptoms are painful and uncomfortable, IBS doesn’t cause damage to the digestive system. Researchers don’t know the exact cause of IBS but, in many patients, the symptoms are exacerbated by:
So, what is colon cancer and how does it differ from IBS? Like IBS, abdominal pain and discomfort are colon cancer symptoms. However, colorectal cancers don’t often produce any symptoms until the cancer has progressed . This is why it’s critical to screen for colon cancer regularly and as directed by your healthcare provider. Possible symptoms of colon cancer can include:
The final symptoms on this list (fatigue and unexplained weight loss) are what set colon cancer apart from IBS.
Blood in the stool, as well, tends to be more common amongst patients with colon cancer rather than IBS. This might be difficult to spot with the naked eye. However, if the stool is darker than usual, this might be the result of blood leaking from polyps in the colon. Polyps, a frequent indicator of colon cancer, are small cell masses that can become cancerous.
When it comes to IBS and colon cancer, the largest distinguishing factor is the severity of the condition. IBS is painful and can lead to a lower quality of life if the symptoms are severe. However, it isn’t a deadly disease.
Colorectal cancers, on the other hand, are one of the most diagnosed cancers in the United States. They’re also the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths . The good news is that colon cancer is highly treatable when it’s caught early. The more it progresses, the more deadly it becomes.
Even having a mild symptom can indicate something is wrong. If you think something might be off, take control of your health and peace of mind by making an appointment with a healthcare provider.
An IBS diagnosis typically involves a visit to your healthcare provider's office . Here, you can expect to do several things, including:
The information gathered during these assessments is usually enough to give your healthcare provider an indication of IBS and not colon cancer.
Most people begin screening for colon cancer when they turn 50 years old. If there is a family history or other increased risk factors, however, screening should begin at 45.
Colorectal cancers are diagnosed using one or more of the following tests:
A healthcare provider will help determine the best colorectal cancer screening tool for you, depending on your risk factor profile. Although blood in the stool can be linked to colon cancer, it can also be linked to hemorrhoids. Learn the difference between hemorrhoids and colon cancer on our blog.
As you can imagine, treatments for IBS and colon cancer are quite different. If you’re diagnosed with colon cancer, you may have a longer, more intense road to recovery. IBS treatments, on the other hand, center on managing the discomfort and flare-ups it causes.
Treating IBS typically involves one or a combination of the following to mitigate the pain associated with the disorder :
Everyone’s body responds to these changes differently, so the appropriate mix of treatment options will depend on each specific case.
Colorectal cancers are classified into five stages, based on three key factors:
The available colon cancer treatments vary depending on the stage the cancer is in when it’s detected.
While a cancer diagnosis is always scary, colorectal cancers are highly treatable if caught early on. If you are looking for ways to keep your colon healthy, regular screening is one of the best ways to stay on top of your health.
Since many of the symptoms of IBS and colon cancer are similar, it can be challenging to know what’s at the root of the discomfort without further testing. Testing may help provide deeper insight.
If you want a noninvasive option to screen for colon cancer, the Everlywell Colon Cancer Screening Test can help. This test is for those over the age of 45 and will provide you with results in just days. This way, you’ll be prepared with the information you need to contact your health professional and to take the necessary steps forward toward a healthier you.
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6. The role of lifestyle-related treatments for IBS - Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed February 18, 2022.
7. Mayo Clinic. Colon cancer - Diagnosis and treatment - Mayo Clinic. Mayoclinic.org. Published 2018. URL. Accessed February 18, 2022.