To monitor the treatment of people diagnosed with colon cancer. It may also be used as a marker for medullary thyroid cancer and cancers of the rectum, lung, breast, liver, pancreas, stomach, and ovaries. An initial CEA test is typically ordered prior to treatment as a "baseline" value. If the level is elevated, then the test can be used to monitor a person's response to therapy and to determine whether the cancer has progressed or recurred.
To determine prognosis—how likely the cancer is to progress
To stage cancer—cancer staging involves evaluating the size of the tumor as well as how far it has spread.
Testing CEA in a body fluid sample may help to determine if cancer has spread to a body cavity (e.g., pleural or peritoneal cavity).
A CEA test may be used in combination with other tumor markers in the evaluation of cancer.
Not all cancers produce CEA, and a positive CEA test is not always due to cancer. Therefore, CEA is not recommended for screening the general population.
A CEA test may be ordered when a person has been diagnosed with colon cancer or other specific types of cancer. It will be measured before therapy is initiated and then on a regular basis to evaluate the success of treatment and to detect recurrence.
Sometimes a CEA test may be performed when cancer is suspected but not yet diagnosed. This is not a common use for the test because CEA can be elevated with many conditions, but it may provide the doctor with additional information.
A CEA test may sometimes be performed on a fluid other than blood when a doctor suspects that a cancer has metastasized (e.g., spread to pleural or peritoneal cavity).
For treatment, recurrence monitoring: When CEA levels are initially elevated and then decrease to normal after therapy, it means the cancer has been successfully treated. A steadily rising CEA level is often the first sign of tumor recurrence.
For prognosis and/or staging: On initial testing, people with smaller and early-stage tumors are likely to have a normal or only slightly elevated CEA value. People with larger tumors, later-stage cancer, or tumors that have spread throughout the body are more likely to have a high CEA value.
Testing for metastasis: If CEA is present in a body fluid other than blood, then the person's cancer is likely to have spread into that area of the body. For example, if CEA is detected in cerebrospinal fluid, this may indicate a central nervous systemmetastasis.
Since not all cancers produce CEA, it is possible to have cancer but also have a normal CEA. If a cancer does not produce CEA, then the test will not be useful as a monitoring tool.
This article was last reviewed on November 2, 2012. | This article was last modified on June 6, 2016.
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