The Warning Signs Of Bowel Cancer That Mimic IBS Symptoms

Don't freak out, just know when it's time to see a doctor.

fodmap diet
Image: iStock

Bloating, cramping, digestive discomfort—for many Australians (1 in 5 to be exact) a temperamental stomach is a daily struggle. You try and do all the right things; identify (and avoid) your triggers, follow a low FODMAP diet, drink lots of water, eat plenty of fermented foods, take a probiotic and manage your stress, all in the aim of easing your tummy troubles.
But how do you know when your relatively innocent (albeit annoying) IBS symptoms are something more sinister?
A few months back, we attended a ‘Trust Your Gut’ event held by bowel cancer prevention charity, the Jodi Lee Foundation, where we learnt some pretty scary facts about the similarities between the symptoms of IBS and bowel cancer.
On the expert panel was Sydney based GP and TV spokesperson, Dr. Ginni Mansberg who stressed the fact that without proper screening, it can be extremely difficult to know the difference between things like constipation, cramping, diarrhoea and abdominal pain as a sign of something diet-related or symptomatic of a more serious condition, like bowel cancer (the second most common cancer in Australia).
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“Almost everyone experiences some (if not all) of the above symptoms at some stage in their lives,” says Dr. Ginni Mansberg. “In fact, around 65% of us will experience uncomfortable gut symptoms in any three-month period.”
Statistically, The Jodi Lee Foundation states that it’s unlikely your symptoms will be caused by bowel cancer (especially if you’re under 50) however that’s not to say you should be complacent, as bowel cancer is increasingly affecting people of all ages. “One in 10 cases occur in people under 50, so a younger diagnosis isn’t out of the question,” says Mansberg.
Keep scrolling for more from Dr. Ginni Mansberg:

For those who are reading this and freaking out, what is your advice to them?

“Uncomfortable gut symptoms are really common and aren’t necessarily a sign of something sinister like bowel cancer, especially if you are under 50. There are other digestive conditions you don’t want to miss though—so seek advice from your GP in the first instance. At the end of the day, it’s your body and it’s important to trust your gut and see a professional so you can rule out anything sinister and THEN get onto improving your symptoms.”

At what point is it time to seek medical attention?

“If symptoms persist for weeks, it’s definitely time to seek medical attention. The most important thing to remember is to identify when something has changed for you.” Mansberg lists signs such as abdominal pain, a change in bowel habits, fatigue and/or unexplained weight loss.

Image: iStock

Is there anything you can do to help prevent bowel cancer?

“25% of bowel cancer cases can be prevented simply by amending your lifestyle—so exercising more, eating more fruits and vegetables and reducing the amount of red meat, processed meat and alcohol you consume. Research also shows that coffee can decrease your risk—a win for latte lovers.”

What type of tests can be done to detect bowel cancer for those under 50?

“Regardless of age, we essentially do a test that looks for blood in your stool (that you can’t see). Everyone gets one as a gift from the government at age 50, but if you’re younger and concerned then it’s important to seek professional advice from your GP. If you’re experiencing symptoms like bloating or constipation, your GP might recommend getting an ultrasound or x-ray which can show what’s called faecal impaction—so how constipated you may be.”

Image: iStock

What are some other things people may not realise about bowel cancer?

“Most importantly, many Australians are probably unaware that 90% of bowel cancer cases can be successfully treated, if they’re diagnosed early. Age is the biggest factor (over 50) and your risk can increase if a first-degree relative (like a parent or sibling) or multiple relatives have been diagnosed with bowel cancer. Or, if you have inflammatory bowel diseases such as Ulcerative Colitis or Crohn’s disease.”
Dr. Ginni Mansberg is a women’s health expert, GP and Jodi Lee Foundation ‘Trust Your Gut’ ambassador.

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