Is it possible to tell the difference between colon cancer’s “change in bowel habits” and the change in IBS?

“Both colon cancer and IBS can have constipation and abdominal cramps,” begins Franjo Vladic, MD, a board certified gastroenterologist with Center for Digestive Health and Endoscopy Center in Ohio.

So there you are, suffering constipation and stomach cramps, a pairing of symptoms that is new to you.

Making matters more unsettling is that you’re over 50 — when the risk for colon cancer goes up (though younger adults can get this disease—but that’s much less common).

Is there a difference, though, between this change in bowel habits caused by colon cancer and that which is brought on by irritable bowel syndrome?

Dr. Vladic says that “the features that distinguish between the two is if the patient demonstrates alarm symptoms such as unintentional weight loss, blood in stools, abdominal distention [bloating], nausea or vomiting.

“If those symptoms are present, it can cause more concern and discussion of colon cancer rather than if those symptoms are not there.”

Unexplained fatigue and loss of appetite are two more potential symptoms that can be from colon cancer.

Colon cancer is diagnosed via a biopsy analysis of a suspicious growth that’s found inside the large colon during a colonoscopy. It’s never diagnosed based on symptoms; only suspected.

IBS is diagnosed only when all other conditions are excluded, such as inflammatory bowel disease and side effects of medications.

Irritable bowel syndrome is a diagnosis of exclusion, so be leery of this diagnosis if you have not undergone every possible test to explain your change in bowel habits—especially if you haven’t had a colonoscopy!

An at-home method for colon cancer screening (not diagnosis) can be performed called Cologuard.


The patient sends a stool sample off for analysis, and abnormal cells will be detected with advanced DNA technology.

A follow-up colonoscopy is then recommended.

Dr. Vladic’s special interests include acid reflux, colitis, colon cancer, GERD, heartburn, IBS, liver disease, obesity, pancreatitis and peptic ulcer, among many others.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.  


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