written by: Vikas Vij
• edited by: Diana Cooper
• updated: 12/8/2010
Tumor marker fluctuations can help in detection of cancer. Tumor markers are measurable bio-chemicals that play a significant role in monitoring the treatment of a cancer patient. Sometimes they can also help in identifying the recurrence of cancer.
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A Basic Guide to Tumor Markers
A tumor marker is a bio-chemical that can signify the malignancy of a tumor. Tumor marker fluctuations help in evaluating the condition of cancer, even though they are usually not specific enough by themselves to provide a clear diagnosis for the presence of cancer. In any case, the fluctuations resulting in tumor markers help to determine the extent or stage of a cancer and estimate the prognosis. They are also useful in keeping a tab on the progress of the treatment and act as warning signals against the recurrence of cancer.
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What are Tumor Markers?
Tumor markers are either the direct derivatives of a tumor, or they are produced in the body due to its association with tumor cells. These bio-chemicals get released into the bloodstream, which makes them measurable in most cases. Tumor marker variations are generally very useful for clinical trials. They also help with diagnosis of cancer when they are used in combination with other indications such as the results of a biopsy or an MRI. Only a selective number of tumor markers are used in clinical practice because a majority of them do not yield specific results.
Tumor markers primarily develop along with the growth of the tumor cells in the body. Such growth usually results in the leakage of some of the substances into the blood or other body fluids. The most commonly used tumor markers may be found in the bloodstream, tissue, stool or urine. Some of the markers are helpful in diagnosing and monitoring various types of cancers, where as some others may be associated with just one specific type of cancer.
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What do Tumor Marker Fluctuations Signify?
Most tumor markers may be present in a healthy individual’s body in very low levels. However, if the level of the marker gets elevated without an explanation, it may be an indication of the presence of cancer. The marker cannot specifically diagnose cancer but it can support the diagnosis. Once the diagnosis is confirmed, the heightened levels of the marker may be used to determine the stage of cancer. A high level of the marker may indicate a worsened prognosis in some situations.
The most effective and common purpose of tumor markers is to monitor the cancer treatment. As the cancer levels go on decreasing in the body, the marker also goes down. If the marker remains stagnant or increases, it is usually an indication that the patient is not responding sufficiently to the treatment. It is important to note that only such marker must be chosen for treatment monitoring which was abnormally elevated prior to the treatment. In situations where the patient is declared free of cancer, the tumor marker may continue to help in watching for any signs of recurrence of the cancer. Periodic testing of the markers is recommended in many cases because it helps to detect the cancer recurrence much before the imaging tests or an ultrasound test may be able to do.