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Tumour Markers

Topic Overview

What is a tumour marker?

A tumour marker is a substance released by cancer cells or by normal cells when cancer is in the body. Tumour markers can be hormones, proteins, enzymes, or other substances. Some conditions that are benign (not cancer) also release tumour markers.

Blood tests are the most common way to test for them. But some markers can be found in other body fluids and in tissue.

How do doctors use tumour markers?

Tumour markers can show different things about cancer. Tests for tumour markers can be used (along with other tests) to help diagnose cancer. Tumour markers also can be used to see how far cancer has spread (what stage it is). Doctors can use them to see how well treatment is working and if cancer has come back (recurred) after treatment.

Some tumour markers help doctors choose the most effective treatment. They also can be used to predict when to start treatment again.

Low or no levels of tumour markers usually mean that treatment is working or that cancer hasn't come back.

What are some of the most common tumour markers?

There are many kinds of tumour markers. Here are a few of the most common.

  • CA 125. CA stands for cancer antigen. This marker may be found in ovarian cancer. It is used mainly to see if cancer treatment is working or to see if cancer has come back.
  • PSA (prostate-specific antigen). This marker may increase in prostate cancer. It decreases after successful treatment. It also may be used as a screening test for prostate cancer.

Tests that look for tumour markers, such as the 21-gene signature test (Oncotype DX) may be done on tumour tissue. Tumour markers can show if the cancer is likely to come back.


Other Works Consulted

  • Fischbach F, Dunning MB III (2015). A Manual of Laboratory and Diagnostic Tests, 9th ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health.
  • Pagana KD, Pagana TJ (2014). Mosby's Manual of Diagnostic and Laboratory Tests, 5th ed. St. Louis: Mosby.


Adaptation Date: 8/19/2021

Adapted By: Alberta Health Services

Adaptation Reviewed By: Alberta Health Services

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