What are Cancer Biomarkers?

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  • Written By: Erin J. Hill
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 14 November 2018
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Cancer biomarkers are genetic or biological markers on cells which may indicate cancer. These can be antigens produced by organs and bodily systems, or unique markers present in one’s DNA which may indicate an increased risk due to inherited defects. Their use and effectiveness at predicting cancer risk is still under investigation, although some studies have shown them to be accurate indicators for detecting cancer and sometimes other ailments.

Antigens can be cancer biomarkers which are produced by organs and other tissues. They secrete certain serums or fluids into the bloodstream, which then attach to cells. These cells can be tested for a particular antigen. Sometimes high levels of these markers can indicate that a tumor is present or that conditions may be right for the formation of a tumor. The location of cancer is determined by matching each serum with the organ or system which normally secretes it.


Genetic cancer biomarkers are still being researched but they may include markers found on cells of DNA which indicate a predisposition for certain types of cancer. It has long been known that cancer runs in families, but identifying these biomarkers may help patients know if they are at risk of developing the disease based on genetic factors. This will be helpful to know because even those at high risk can avoid certain cancers by making lifestyle changes or by having procedures performed in advance. For instance, someone at high risk of developing breast cancer may have a mastectomy to lower the risk even before cancer is present.

Neither type of cancer biomarker is fully understood and some types are not entirely accurate. Antigens, for example, can show up in higher numbers for a variety of reasons that may or may not have anything to do with cancer. Certain illnesses may cause their overproduction, and some people may have naturally higher levels than others with no underlying condition.

Additionally, the presence of cancer biomarkers does not always indicate that cancer is inevitable. Lifestyle changes and avoiding certain substances can go a long way in preventing disease. Identifying genetic markers may also cause stress for those who are more predisposed than others, which can become counterproductive in patients who are already leading a healthy lifestyle. Anxiety is a major contributor to health problems, including cancer, so some patients may be better off not knowing their individual biomarkers unless a cancer diagnosis is almost inevitable and interventions can be performed.



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