Tumor Marker Tests

Tumor Marker Tests

What are tumor marker tests?

These tests look for tumor markers, sometimes called cancer markers, in the blood, urine, or body tissues. Tumor markers are substances made by cancer cells or by normal cells in response to cancer in the body. Some tumor markers are specific to one type of cancer. Others can be found in several types of cancers.

Because tumor markers can also show up in certain noncancerous conditions, tumor marker tests are not usually used to diagnose cancer or screen people at low risk of the disease. These tests are most often done on people already diagnosed with cancer. Tumor markers can help find out if your cancer has spread, whether your treatment is working, or if your cancer has come back after you’ve finished treatment.
What are they used for?

Tumor marker tests are most often used to:

Plan your treatment. If tumor marker levels go down, it usually means the treatment is working.
Help find out if a cancer has spread to other tissues
Help predict the likely outcome or course of your disease
Check to see if your cancer has come back after successful treatment
Screen people at high risk for cancer. Risk factors can include family history and previous diagnosis of another type of cancer

tumor markers

Why do I need a tumor marker test?

You may need a tumor marker test if you are currently being treated for cancer, have finished cancer treatment, or have a high risk of getting cancer because of family history or other reasons.

The type of test you get will depend on your health, health history, and symptoms you may have. Below are some of the most common types of tumor markers and what they are used for.


CA 125 (cancer antigen 125)
Tumor marker for: ovarian cancer
Used to:
  • See if cancer treatment is working
  • See if cancer has come back after you’ve finished treatment


CA 15-3 and CA 27-29 (cancer antigens 15-3 and 27-29)
Tumor markers for: breast cancer
Used to: Monitor treatment in women with advanced breast cancer


PSA (prostate-specific antigen)
Tumor marker for: prostate cancer
Used to:
  • Screen for prostate cancer
  • Help diagnose prostate cancer
  • Monitor treatment
  • Check to see if cancer has come back after you’ve finished treatment


CEA (carcinoembryonic antigen)
Tumor marker for: colorectal cancer, and also for cancers of the lung, stomach, thyroid, pancreas, breast, and ovary
Used to:
  • See if cancer treatment is working
  • See if cancer has come back after you’ve finished treatment


AFP (Alpha-fetoprotein)
Tumor marker for: liver cancer, and cancers of the ovary or testicles
Used to:
  • Help diagnose liver cancer
  • Find out if cancer has spread (the stage of cancer)
  • See if cancer treatment is working
  • Predict chances for recovery


B2M (Beta 2-microglobulin)
Tumor marker for: multiple myeloma, some lymphomas, and leukemias
Used to:
  • See if cancer treatment is working
  • Predict chances for recovery


What happens during a tumor marker test?

There are different ways to test for tumor markers. Blood tests are the most common type of tumor marker tests. Urine tests or biopsies may also be used to check for tumor markers. A biopsy is a minor procedure that involves removing a small piece of tissue for testing.

If you are getting a blood test, a health care professional will take a blood sample from a vein in your arm, using a small needle. After the needle is inserted, a small amount of blood will be collected into a test tube or vial. You may feel a little sting when the needle goes in or out. This usually takes less than five minutes.

If you are getting a urine test, ask your health care provider for instructions on how to provide your sample.

If you are getting a biopsy, a health care provider will take out a small piece of tissue by cutting or scraping the skin. If your provider needs to test tissue from inside your body, he or she may use a special needle to withdraw the sample.

Will I need to do anything to prepare for the test?

You usually don’t need any special preparations for a blood or urine test. If you are getting a biopsy, you may need to fast (not eat or drink) for several hours before the procedure. Talk to your health care provider if you have any questions about preparing for your test.

Are there any risks to the test?

There is very little risk to having a blood test. You may have slight pain or bruising at the spot where the needle was put in, but most symptoms go away quickly.

There is no risk to a urine test.

If you have had a biopsy, you may have a little bruising or bleeding at biopsy site. You may also have a little discomfort at the site for a day or two.

What do the results mean?

Depending in what type of test you had and how it was used, your results may:

  • Help diagnose the type or stage of your cancer.
  • Show whether your cancer treatment is working.
  • Help plan future treatment.
  • Show if your cancer has returned after you’ve finished treatment.

If you have questions about your results, talk to your health care provider.

Is there anything else I need to know about tumor marker tests?

Tumor markers can be very useful, but the information they provide can be limited because:

  • Some noncancerous conditions can cause tumor markers.
  • Some people with cancer don’t have tumor markers.
  • Not all types of cancer have tumor markers.

So, tumor markers are almost always used with other tests to help diagnose and monitor cancer.



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