Topic Overview

What is a tumor marker?

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

Tumor markers can show different things about cancer. Tests for tumor markers can be used (along with other tests) to help diagnose cancer. Tumor 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 tumor 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 tumor markers usually mean that treatment is working or that cancer hasn't come back.

What are some of the most common tumor markers?

There are many kinds of tumor markers. Here are few of the most common:

  • CA 125. CA stands for cancer antigen. This marker may be found in ovarian and endometrial cancers. 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.
  • Beta2-microglobulin. An increase in this substance is a marker for chronic lymphocytic leukemia and multiple myeloma .
  • CA 15-3. This is a breast cancer marker. It may be used to check how well treatment is working for cancer that has spread (metastatic breast cancer).
  • CA 27-29. This is a marker in breast cancer. Doctors can use it to see how treatment is working for cancer that comes back.
  • Carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA). This is a marker for colorectal cancer. It also can be used as a marker for other cancers: pancreas, lung, stomach, thyroid, breast, and ovary. Doctors use it to watch how well treatment is working. They also can use this marker to check for cancer recurrence.


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.


ByHealthwise Staff

Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine

Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine

Specialist Medical Reviewer Jimmy Ruiz, MD - Medical Oncology, Hematology

Current as ofMay 3, 2017