Modern technological advancement has made disease detection quicker and easier. Patients nowadays can be given prompt life-saving treatment especially in emergency cases. Some investigations even allow patients to know whether they will transmit or carry the disease to their loved-ones such as in genetic studies and infectious disease detection methods. Other than that, the next rising popular investigation in medical check-ups are cancer marker tests.
What are cancer markers tests?
Cancer marker tests oftens measure proteins that are elevated, associated or produced by cancerous cells in the body. These proteins can either be found in your stool, urine, blood, even other bodily fluids or tissue samples. The tests are also usually designed to cater in adult patients as cells are more developed and protein levels have leveled off in general. Depending on your symptoms and complete medical history, your doctors may suggest cancer marker tests.
In a broad scheme of healthcare system, cancer or tumour marker tests can actually help clinician to:
- Arrive towards an initial diagnosis of a patient’s condition.
- Plan a more curated treatment based on the type of cancers or tumours that they have.
- Make a reliable prognosis of a patient’s condition or their wellbeing after treatment.
- Anticipate or look for risks of recurrence.
Patients are encouraged and recommended to ask questions regarding this process. This is because it is crucial that these tests are consented and for you, the patient, to understand what the results will tell.
Do I have cancer if I tested positive for those markers?
The short version of the answer is ‘it depends’. This is because cancer markers tests are not perfect. The commonest problem with these tests are they not specific or sensitive enough to actually definitively say someone is cancer free. For example, cancer markers CA 125 which is normally used for ovarian cancer monitoring. The problem is, CA 125 protein can also be present and increase in benign conditions such as menstruation and pregnancy, which are not even a health problem. Therefore, making it a non-reliable tool for ovarian cancer screening or diagnostic if dependent on it alone.
Other limitations with cancer or tumour marker test are:
- Some normal cells may even produce the same protein as tumour markers and have it raised despite being healthy.
- Cancer markers fluctuate rather rapidly over time.
- Certain cancer types might not even produce detectable level or known tumour markers in existence.
- Cancer markers tend to be more prominent in the later stages of cancer.
- In rare cases, even when the cancer type does produce tumour markers proteins, these proteins might not even be raised.
When should I get cancer markers tests?
Ultimately, the medical autonomy is still up to the patient. Malaysia’s Ministry of Health current guideline stance is that these tests should be done based on physician’s clinical reasoning and patient’s decision to do so. Nowadays, there are many medical check-up packages provided by insurance companies, government and even private hospitals that include cancer marker tests. They usually offer them for men and women aged 50 years or above but any age group can get it done if they want too.
However, there are certain conditions where patients might be advised to get cancer marker tests earlier in their live, such as:
- Family history of cancer. Individuals that have relatives diagnosed with cancers.
- History of benign growth or cancers in the past.
- Individuals who are exposed with high levels of radiation
How much does cancer marker tests cost in Malaysia?
As mentioned before, cancer marker tests are usually included in a complete health check-up package. The cost can range from a couple of hundred ringgits to thousands of ringgits. It usually relies on the tests intricacy, equipment used and how comprehensive it is. Nonetheless, it does not mean the pricier it is the better they are, patients should take these tests behind an acceptable clinical reasoning.
Overall, a good diagnostician will not rely heavily on tumour markers, they will correlate a patient’s medical history, symptoms and a few imaging before confirming that someone has cancer. Even though cancer marker tests are testament to modern medicine, it is still far from perfect to be relied solely upon making a diagnosis.