IBS or cancer – how do you tell the difference?

Holly Slater was a fit and healthy 28-year-old nursery worker who died from bowel cancer after doctors mistakenly diagnosed her with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). She saw her doctor several times over an 18-month period — she was suffering from bloating and abdominal cramps, which doctors misdiagnosed as IBS.

Slater was prescribed medication to ease her stomach cramps and laxatives to help with her constipation. "The doctor diagnosed her with IBS, and at that point, apart from being a bit uncomfortable, it wasn’t really causing any day-to-day problems," her mother, Lynne, told the Daily Mail. "It wasn’t until the beginning of 2012 that the symptoms worsened."

Slater developed frequently trapped wind and constipation, “but there was no bleeding at all so cancer didn’t cross her or the doctor’s mind.” Eventually she was sent for an X-ray which showed an abnormality.

"The doctors thought she may have another inflammatory bowel condition called Crohn’s Disease and she was given antibiotics," said Lynne. "Even up until this point she suffered with none of the classic symptoms of bowel cancer such as bloody stools and diarrhoea."

The doctors then found a tumour during a colonoscopy. After undergoing surgery and chemotherapy, the cancer spread to her lungs, bones and liver; Slater died less than two years later.

If you have stomach complaints, how do you know whether it's IBS or something more serious like cancer? 

How IBS and colon cancer are diagnosed

IBS usually won’t cause any obvious detectable abnormalities in your digestive system, which means there are no specific tests to diagnose it. A doctor diagnoses IBS through careful consideration of your symptoms – how long you’ve had them, how severe they are and where the pain is located – and a process of elimination of other conditions.

Diagnosing colon cancer early, however, gives you the greatest chance of successful treatment. If you have an average risk of colon cancer, it’s recommended that you start screening from the age of 50; if you have an increased risk you should start screening earlier. Screening options include colonoscopies, biopsy analysis and blood tests.

Symptoms of IBS vs. colon cancer

Symptoms of IBS are categorised as follows:

Colonic symptoms (most common)

  • Diarrhoea, constipation, bloating, abdominal pain and heartburn
  • Straining and urgency when defecating and incomplete evacuation
  • Mucus in the stool 

Non-colonic symptoms

  • Psychosocial distress (anxiety, depression and/or stress)
  • Lethargy
  • Backache and headache
  • Muscle pain
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea 

People with IBS will often wake up in the morning feeling fine, but as the day progresses bloating, pain and/or discomfort will start and intensify.

Symptoms of colon cancer include:

  • A change in bowel habits
  • Blood in the stool (red or tarry)
  • Foul-smelling stool
  • Abdominal discomfort such as colic, bloating or fullness
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • A feeling that one wants to pass stool, but nothing comes out

When to see the doctor

According to Dr Victor Marchione, you should never self-diagnose. “If you experience uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms, get a full medical evaluation instead of making it a guessing game. In some cases, it could be irritable bowel syndrome – but then again, it might be colon cancer.”

Image credit: iStock 

Read more on: colon cancer ibs

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