Tumor markers are substances in your body that provide information about certain types of cancer. They may refer to proteins that some cancer cells make in large quantities. Tumor markers may also refer to patterns or changes in your DNA. Tumor markers help healthcare providers diagnose and learn more about certain types of cancer.
A tumor marker is any substance in your body that provides information about a cancer. Traditionally, tumor markers refer to proteins that cancer cells make. Noncancerous cells can also make tumor markers in response to a cancer. But a tumor marker can also refer to mutations (changes) or patterns in your DNA.
Other names for tumor markers include cancer markers and biomarkers.
Tumor markers — in combination with other tests — help healthcare providers diagnose and treat certain types of cancer. Tumor markers can:
Some tumor markers only give information about one specific type of cancer. Other tumor markers give information about more than one type of cancer.
There are two main types of tumor markers:
Circulating tumor markers are in:
To get a sample of your blood, a healthcare provider will run a blood test. If they need a urine, saliva or stool sample, they’ll give you instructions on how to obtain it. To get a sample of your bone marrow, you’ll need a bone marrow biopsy.
Tumor tissue markers are in:
A healthcare provider will take a biopsy (small sample) of the affected tissue and send it to a pathology lab for analysis.
No, many cancers don’t have known tumor markers. In these cases, tumor marker testing isn’t an option. When this happens, your healthcare provider may recommend other lab tests or imaging tests, like CT (computed tomography) scans or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
There are many different tumor markers that test for many different types of cancer. Here are some of the most common:
It depends on the type of cancer your healthcare provider tests for. Tumor marker tests typically require one of the following:
Healthcare providers may run these tests to diagnose cancer, to help plan treatment or to see if your current treatment is working. You might need more than one tumor marker test.
It depends on several factors, including what type of tumor marker test your provider requests. You could receive blood, urine, stool or saliva test results within a day or two. If you need a biopsy, it could take a week or longer to get your results.
There are many different cancer markers, each with their own normal range. To learn more about tumor marker ranges for a specific type of cancer, talk to your healthcare provider.
High tumor marker results could suggest the presence of cancer. It may also suggest that cancer has progressed or spread (metastasized). But this test alone isn’t enough to diagnose cancer. If you have high test results, your healthcare provider will explain what the numbers mean. They may also run additional tests.
If tumor markers go down, it could mean treatment is working. Tumor markers can go up and down over time, even over the course of your treatment. For this reason, it can be difficult to measure them consistently. That’s why healthcare providers use tumor marker tests in combination with other diagnostic tests.
Many noncancerous conditions can cause high tumor marker results. Some of the most notable include:
Research suggests that chronic stress may cause cancer to spread faster or recur (come back) in people who’ve had cancer in the past.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Tumor markers — in combination with other diagnostic tools — help healthcare providers diagnose, treat and monitor certain types of cancer. There are many different tumor markers for different types of cancer, so be sure to ask your healthcare provider what your test results mean for you.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/15/2023.
Learn more about our editorial process.