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Does Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Cause Cancer?

There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding conditions like irritable bowel syndrome largely because the cause is unknown but it is not a disease as such. One of the concerns is that irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may cause cancer of the bowels or precede the onset of colon cancer. Naturally the condition is a cause for concern. The symptoms can be distressing when your irritable bowel syndrome aggravates and some of these fears may be warranted.

However, irritable bowel syndrome does not cause cancer, it is not a sign of cancer and neither is it a pre-cancerous condition. The same cannot be said for another chronic bowel condition known as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) which is associated with colorectal cancer. While IBS sufferers can breathe a sigh of relief about the non-existent link between irritable bowel syndrome and bowel cancer, it is important to first verify that your symptoms are really due to IBS.

IBS Functional Bowel Disorder

IBS is a functional bowel disorder. The word functional can be confusing but it simply means that the symptoms you are experiencing are not related to a disease. When you have a disease, it is said be a pathological condition. When you have symptoms associated with a normal shift in the body during life then it is said be physiological. IBS is neither pathological nor is it physiological.

It is believed that IBS arises as a result of abnormal bowel transit time. This is the time that it takes food that enters the mouth to reach the rectum. In other words, the contractions of the muscles in the gut wall are either overactive or underactive thereby causing either diarrhea-predominant or constipation pre-dominant IBS. It is not a disease process but rather an abnormal physiological process.

IBS and Cancer

With the basic understanding of how irritable bowel syndrome occurs, as a functional disorder, it may be more clearer as to why it is not associated with major complications like bowel cancer. IBS can be debilitating and affect the patient physically, psychologically and socially. But there is no infection, inflammation or abnormalities in cell growth within the bowel – common reasons for cancerous lesions.

Cancer is known as a malignant tumor. Cells for some reason or the other may undergo some genetic change that causes it to replicate abnormally fast and invade surrounding tissue. These cancerous cells can then break away and travel to other parts of the body. This does not happen in irritable bowel syndrome.

IBS is Benign

Sometimes the word benign is used to describe conditions like irritable bowel syndrome. This word can trigger concerns about cancer because tumors may be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Some benign tumors can become malignant. However, the word benign actually means harmless and irritable bowel syndrome is harmless in that it does not lead to serious complications or death.

While IBS can be very debilitating, it is not life threatening. However, there are instances where people are misdiagnosed with IBS and then later it is discovered that they have more serious conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or even bowel cancer. It is therefore important to undergo proper diagnostic testing and have irritable bowel syndrome diagnosed by a doctor and preferably a gastroenterologist. The diagnosis of IBS is only reached when other possible pathological conditions of the bowel have been ruled out.

Sometimes serious bowel conditions like cancer may be difficult to diagnose in the early stages. Therefore IBS should only be diagnosed after repeat testing several months later where no definitive pathological cause can be identified. The bottom line though is that irritable bowel syndrome does not cause cancer. However, IBS symptoms may sometimes be due to cancer and just misdiagnosed.


Posted by in Medical Questions

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