What are Cancer Tumor Markers?

S. Gadd

Cancer tumor markers are simply defined as substances that are produced at abnormal levels in the bodies of people with cancer. These markers are usually proteins and can be detected in body fluids like blood or urine or in a biopsied tissue sample. Cancer tumor markers may refer to substances that are directly responsible for the tumor’s growth or metastasis, or they may refer to substances that are produced by the body in response to the cancer.

A doctor can run blood and urine tests to detect various cancers.
A doctor can run blood and urine tests to detect various cancers.

Tumor markers were originally proposed as a way to detect certain types of cancer prior to the onset of cancer-associated symptoms. It was thought that the discovery of cancer tumor markers would lead to simple blood or urine tests that could be used as diagnostic tools for a variety of cancers. Researchers and doctors were very excited by this prospect because the ability to detect cancer in the early stages can dramatically improve outcome.

High PSA levels may be a sign of early stage prostate cancer.
High PSA levels may be a sign of early stage prostate cancer.

Unfortunately, this has not panned out as originally hoped. Many of the proposed cancer tumor markers are produced at low levels in people that do not have the associated cancer because many conditions other than cancer can result in the production of most of these markers. In addition, not all people with a specific cancer will produce cancer tumor markers. This is most often the case in the early cancer stages. Due to the fact that most of these markers lack specificity, they are rarely used alone as a diagnostic tool.

Cancer tumor markers are best used in individuals to monitor cancer treatments.
Cancer tumor markers are best used in individuals to monitor cancer treatments.

Despite these drawbacks, several cancer tumor markers are considered possible screening tools. Probably the best known of these is prostate specific antigen (PSA), which can be used to screen for prostate cancer in men. Although many men with high PSA levels often turn out not to have prostate cancer, the test does detect cancer in many men in the early stages that otherwise would have gone unnoticed.

Chemotherapy is commonly used to treat many different types of cancer.
Chemotherapy is commonly used to treat many different types of cancer.

The CA-125 marker is sometimes used as a tool to screen women for ovarian cancer. This marker is considered less sensitive than PSA, however, and has a fairly high rate of both false positives and false negatives. The main problem with this marker is that over-production of CA-125 may result from gynecological problems that have nothing to do with ovarian cancer.

Cancer tumor markers are best used in individuals to monitor cancer treatments or to predict the recurrence, or relapse, of cancer. This is because this method measures a cancer tumor marker in the same person over a specific period of time. In these cases, a sudden drop or a sudden elevation of a specific marker is likely to represent a favorable response to treatment or the risk of cancer relapse, respectively.

A PET scan may be conducted to check for cancer cells in a person's body.
A PET scan may be conducted to check for cancer cells in a person's body.

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